Rockets and Blue Lights – National Theatre Dorfman

Winsome Pinnock’s brilliant play examines the way we look at art, and the legacies of Turner and the slave trade

The Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) by J.M.W. Turner

It is unusual for the most striking work in an exhibition to be a painting that isn’t there. However, the curators of Turner’s Modern World at Tate Britain earlier this year considered The Slave Ship (completed in 1840) to be of such significance that they made it an absent centrepiece. The painting itself is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and is too fragile to travel, but the high-quality reproduction hung in the middle of the exhibition – to shocking effect.

The painting famously depicts the 1781 Zong massacre, which occurred when J.M.W. Turner was only six – though there are counter-theories that it depicts a similar, later event. When the Zong slave ship charted the wrong course and began to run out of drinking water, over 130 enslaved people were thrown overboard. The first thought of the ship’s owners, on landing in Jamaica, was to attempt to make an insurance claim for the murdered slaves. Turner’s decision to make such a scene the subject of a painting has been figured by critics (and the Tate themselves) as a sign of his growing liberal perspective, and guilt over the ways he had profited from the slave trade. The Tate contextualises the work with the fact that the ‘personal fortunes of some of Turner’s early patrons came from slavery’, while Turner himself, in 1805, ‘sought to benefit from it’ by investing ‘£100 in a proposed cattle farm in Jamaica to be worked by enslaved people.’ The venture fell through, and Turner lost his money.

The painting is also an absent presence in Winsome Pinnock’s extraordinary Rockets and Blue Lights. It is never seen on stage in any form, but the play begins with a powerful ekphrastic description of its colours: ‘Amber, gold, chrome, the darkest-darkest sea.’ Yet Pinnock is keen to show that artistic appreciation is not neutral. ‘All I could see was Turner’s use of colour, his elegant suggestion of bloodshed in a captured sunset. I didn’t think about what had just happened to those poor men, women, children. They were invisible’, Lou says. Looking is revealed not as a primordial, pre-political act, but the product of conditioning and constructed norms of artistic taste. To see the bodies, just visible in the swirling tides, Lou ‘had to look, really look’. Looking upon such a dark history can be challenging, and Pinnock seems to encapsulate the competing impulses to stare and to look away in the title of the play, which references another Turner painting, completed later in the same year – metaphorical eyes skating onto a less confronting work. The play is not merely a debate over whether Turner’s art is ‘problematic’. Instead, Pinnock asks a more profound question: how does the way we look at art and artefacts affect our understanding of history? Both The Slave Ship and Rockets and Blue Lights are projected in the Dorfman foyer as we leave, ripe for re-evaluation.

Luke Wilson and Kiza Deen in Rockets and Blue Lights

The play examines the value of compromised art in general. Lou (a terrific Kiza Deen) is an actor in a fictional film called The Ghost Ship. In it she plays the ghost of a slave, Olu, who is imagined haunting Turner as he completes The Slave Ship, inspiring him to tell her story. Yet any initial radicalism of the film project is sapped away by studio-mandated rewrites; they increasingly tell Turner’s story over that of Olu. At a readthrough of a rewritten scene, Lou is surprised to read that ‘Olu appears naked, wet’ – the nudity added only after she has agreed to perform in the film. Not only is this change manipulative for Lou, it undermines the story being told and the way the film’s audience is being invited to look at an enslaved character. The ‘wonderful material about Olu’s life before she was captured’ has been excised due to ‘cuts’ demanded by the film’s financiers, while Turner’s life has been presented in even more detail. Apparently, the audience will ‘feel cheated’ if they are not shown the reasons why Turner paints The Slave Ship. The film’s audience are invited to look on Turner as a ‘complex’ figure, where Olu is now a depersonalised, eroticised body.

When Lou threatens to walk over the alterations, writer-director Trevor responds, ‘Which would you prefer? That the film gets made, that people get to hear this story, or that it just disappears?’ Here, Pinnock encapsulates the Hobson’s choice faced particularly by Black creatives; either they can make compromised art, or no art at all. What compromises them most is, of course, money. The Ghost Ship is funded by a grant from the ‘Abolition Legacy Foundation’, a fictional organisation symbolic of Britain’s ongoing revisionism over the abolition of slavery. The existence of abolition is treated as a piece of heritage worthy of celebration, rather than a cause of shame. Yet as Pinnock writes in her ‘Note on Play’ at the start of the text, the passing of a law did not translate to the end of the slave trade itself: ‘slavery wasn’t properly abolished until around 1838, and may have continued beyond that.’

The play’s second narrative strand, set in 1840, directly examines the persistence of slavery. It fictionalises an account of Turner’s painting of The Slave Ship, in which he travels incognito on a supposedly decommissioned slave ship called ‘The Glory’ to gain inspiration for his seascapes. Yet Pinnock lends equal weight to the story of Thomas, a sailor who ends up enslaved when their voyage reveals its true purpose: illegally transporting slaves almost a decade after 1833’s Slavery Abolition Act.

Karl Collins and Paul Bradley in Rockets and Blue Lights

The structure allows for clever transitions between 1840 and the contemporary film set of a period drama. In one historical scene, Olu refuses to be fed and is punished with a whip. Pinnock directly criticises contemporary art’s all-too-common impulse to depict brutalised Black bodies, most commonly on screen. As the scene continues, it seamlessly shifts to the set of The Ghost Ship. Seemingly overcome by the intensity of the scene – or perhaps infuriated by the violence’s persistence as a trope – Lou grabs the whip and starts retaliating at her assailants. Seemingly the financial interests behind the film have encouraged Trevor to make the production grittier and more visceral, but the result is – as Lou says – ‘the usual torture porn’. Pinnock’s powerful critique attests to the power of images in our understanding of slave narratives. While diminishing the realities of historical suffering would be counter-productive, depicting violence can reify a white supremacist hierarchy. As Lou says, ‘every single lash sends a subliminal message that to be white means to have never been a slave’.

You can feel the play grappling with itself, trying to find the balance. Yet theatre seems better suited to representing such violence, compared to film’s more realist instincts. Miranda Cromwell’s production has the captor whip the ground, while Olu cries out in agony on the other side of the stage. The effect remains horrifying, but there is a symbolic separation of the undeniable historical violence of forced transportation and the real body of an actor, as viewed by an audience.

Part of the problem in representations of slavery is in power imbalance between characters; dramatizing a position of powerlessness can lead to some characters only being subjugated – and thus dehumanised. Pinnock examines this particularly in the second half of the play, in the struggle over who the main character in The Ghost Ship is. The issue is epitomised in the respective awards received by Lou and Roy, for playing Olu and Turner. He won best actor, where she was nominated for best supporting actress. Roy attempts to redress the balance, accepting his award on behalf of Lou and saying it belongs to a descendant of enslaved people rather than him. ‘By the end they were all standing up, applauding… not a dry eye in the house’, Roy recalls. Yet this is just another white man using a slave narrative to receive a standing ovation. However well-meaning, he has centred himself once again – just as his script suggestions to producers have centred Turner in the film, inadvertently (or perhaps not) tipping the balance away from Lou being eligible for the best actress award.

The play does not lose sight of the fact that Lou is still in a privileged position, though her wings have been clipped. After all, her whipping of a comparatively unknown actor is quickly smoothed over as a ‘prank’ and a ‘joke’. Yet even when elevated, she exists in the shadow of Turner (and Roy) – as the whole play does. Roy claims that ‘It’s not my film. It’s Turner’s’, to which Lou responds, ‘It is not his. It belongs to the enslaved.’

In what I felt to be the play’s most powerful moment, Pinnock suggests that what makes the world’s artistic response to slavery truly compromised is the fact that enslavement, transportation and mass killings like the Zong massacre destroyed generations of artists. ‘Among those people who drowned were artists, musicians, mothers, fathers, daughters, generations of unborn babies’, Lou says. Regardless of whether slavery art is exploitative or an attempt at commemoration, it is almost always being created from an outside view, a perspective which defines how we look at art in general. The Slave Ship ‘isn’t about our suffering’, says Lou. ‘It’s about his.’ Generations of potential artists were enslaved and killed, along with their potential descendants – thus rendered unable to express their suffering in art themselves. This is the yardstick Turner’s ‘greatness’ should be measured against.

Yet as a result of these missing stories and artworks, we are forced to consult Turner as a major source. The question of why Turner painted The Slave Ship is cleverly dealt with in Rockets and Blue Lights; the impossibility of knowing makes it hard to be definitive, and narratives such as The Ghost Ship hide the grim facts of slavery behind a cloak of mysticism. Instead, Pinnock uses the historical strand to expose the existence of slavery long beyond supposed abolition, while Turner’s guilt at investing in a sugar works is presented as fundamentally pathetic. He confesses the fact to Thomas with little real apology, only shame at his grubby little secret – for which he is only punished in the play with the ship’s custom ‘Pollywog’, a game in which the sailors momentarily simulate drowning. It hardly compares to the vast number of people drowned by slavers in the Atlantic. Thus, the painting is not treated as the final act in a grand redemption arc – like in The Ghost Ship, whose final image is of the completed canvas. Pinnock does not want us to replace our blinkered appreciation of Turner’s use of colour with a reductive analysis of his white guilt. There is nothing especially radical about repositioning him from ‘genius’ to ‘troubled genius’.

Instead, Turner’s work is valuable because of what it can tell us about a lost history – if we truly look. Writing in a feature for the Tate, Pinnock argues that ‘Slave Ship isn’t like the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, which was erected in order for people to venerate a man who gained his wealth through the slave trade.’ The removal of a statue like Colston’s – an object of self-fashioned propaganda – is a correction to a distorted historical record, rather than destroying a source. Turner’s painting, however, is far more complicated. As Pinnock says, ‘it’s important that people see this painting, and think about what it is saying.’

Towards the end of Rockets and Blue Lights, the character Reuben presents Lou with ‘a lump of metal’, revealed to be ‘ballast [which] compensated’ for the losses of slaves overboard on Atlantic journeys. Pinnock’s stage directions indicate that Lou ‘holds it as though it is sacred’; physical objects like this take on such significance when so much information is missing. It has huge value as a record which makes slavery a semi-tangible, comprehensible thing, rather than something abstract, of the past, and from which we look away. Yet we must look again. It is too easy for us to think of the painting as the product of ‘Turner’s Modern World’, looking back on the slave trade as a historical aberration or defunct economic system. Instead, slavery was a core part of industrialised modernity – long after abolition. Whether or not British ships and sailors continued transporting the enslaved in the second leg of the triangular trade route after 1833 – and the play makes a compelling case that they did – Britain still remained complicit. The cotton Britain bought from America was not ethically neutral.

So much knowledge of the history of slavery has been lost to shipwrecks – including the estimated ten to twenty per cent of people who died while being abducted from Africa and forcibly moved to America. Laura Hopkins’ ingenious set pools with water at the end of the play. As the cast bow, the water lapping around their ankles almost suggests that the ephemeral event of the play is lost to time too, like narratives of slavery passed down only by speech, or lost entirely. Indeed, the play is set in what looks like the ruins of a ship. Yet the cumulative effect of Pinnock’s skilful dramaturgy being brought to life by a superb cast, directed with focus, care and empathy, is a play that lingers in the mind long after it ends, rather than being lost to time.

Rockets and Blue Lights

Written by Winsome Pinnock, Directed by Miranda Cromwell, Design by Laura Hopkins, Starring Kiza Deen, Anthony Aje, Paul Bradley, Karl Collins, Rochelle Rose, Matthew Seadon-Young, Kudzai Sitim, Cathy Tyson, Everal A Walsh, Luke Wilson
Reviewed 25th September 2021

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