Totally Turner: Rockets and Blue Lights and Modern Turner
Rockets and Blue Lights (National Theatre) is not a nice costume drama if that’s what you’re after — don’t go!
It will make you think and wonder. Through several inter-related stories, it examines journeys, ships and their journeys, stories — those we know, those we find and those that are lost, and what art is for; not to mention how we share our stories — namely it right to tell young black British people over and over that they are descendants of enslaved people, oppressed, maligned by their own society and culture.
The production powerfully uses song, dancing (both good and bad) and through several stories how slavery horribly continued as we paid off owners of enslaved people and turned a blind eye. It’s about whose history we tell, how and why and what we are doing to people by retelling these stories again and again.
Cathy Tyson is amazing! Turner the artist is a horrible old letch — which may or may not be true — https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/review-and-comment-turner-secret-sketches
There is also love and romance, some really decent men and twirling crinolines, even loving families. There are a lot of jokes. Grandad pops back to vigour to tell his life story. It’s kind of magical realism.
It made me hate myself for being white tho as far as I know, my family were farm labourers and no profiteers. But perhaps it’s about Dr J Perkinsing this — not to blame or shame, but to be truthful and to love one another. The white characters in this drama were all terrible — no-one was allowed to redeem themselves or be other than a battle of clichés, wrong motives, thoughts, ideas, words. No allies here — in a kind of reverse racism and stereotyping, white people were all the same.. Zuby has some interesting thoughts on this! The other characters, especially the women, had dignity, breadth, depth, range. Voiceless men used their voice in song to fight back.
But it also makes you think — what happens when you cut off the story from the characters you seek to portray and only show the suffering and horror — also who shows it, and why…And how people deal with their pasts — are dancing or sugar good or bad things? Not to mention that black facing and stealing of ideas.
Water is also used in this play — this is the first drama I’ve seen where the cast take a bow paddling and run away from further bows to dry off.
So today to Tate Britain to see Modern Turner. And looking at him funny for signs of being a horrible old letch. Turner did try to invest in slave trade profits; but he also seemed to have changed his mind. I am concerned about this revealing of everyone all the time — on one hand, truth is a good thing, and to be aware of bias and weakness is also good. But in calling out untruth, are we saying that people can never change, repent or think differently at any time?
Turners painting of enslaved people being dispatched into shark infested waters for profit is a horror. We don’t see full forms — perhaps for dignity, perhaps because it’s too horrific to look on. Instead we see limbs, a sea of frothing, foaming red and one solitary head crying out — for help, for mercy, for end.
Turner seems to have been very influenced by his patrons and by who paid best, as well as by politics. His paintings are full of hidden meanings and some not so subtle, if you care to look. By the end, he was also doing Cezanne or Lowry before they were a thing.
Amazingly, in every battle scene, he gives each face and body a personality, individualism — whilst trying to knock out Rembrandt’s use of light and shade to celebrate industry, capitalism, modernity, improvement and possibly the working man and woman, and unexpectedly the whaling and whale blubber trade. The detail is even there in minute engravings..
Not sure about Turner the letch. Not sure why the drowning white body is a sensual delight — he has two Titanic like disasters here.
He also puts into paint extraordinary things such as Trafalgar (spot Nelson!) Catholic emancipation; the human cost of Waterloo; disputes in the Anglican church; the forging of a Duke of Wellington statue — with a worrying lack of PPE for the female furnace fire feeder; Napoleon as a man of blood pondering his next move, and ordinary people understanding faith. I’m not sure why the fight for Greece or the Houses of Parliament aflame had been removed. But new industries, canals, steam trains become things of wonder.
So jury’s still out. But almost too much Turner here! Loved his very small pictures of Germany and the King’s birthday picnic; think the critics were cruel to dismiss his picture of the Prince Consort’s home, although the woman on that bank has an oddly proportioned body.