at the Traverse Theatre, Monday 6th August 2013
*Originally written for Culture Wars*
John Kerry recently pledged to put an early stop to drone strikes in Pakistan. The extent to which you believe this depends on your trust in politicians, but his statement certainly doesn’t mark an all-out end to drone warfare. According to the unnamed Pilot in Grounded, within five years their use will be widespread. And though its contemporary relevance is the reason for its immediate success, the play is also an extraordinarily human account of war and family which has an impact far beyond its resonance in 2013.
George Brant’s play takes the form of a monologue told by Pilot, whose story begins flying planes in live combat missions. After she’s married and had a child, however, she’s shifted from “The Blue” to a trailer in the desert in Las Vegas where she faces “The Gray” for twelve hours a day flying a reaper drone. Where once she came back home on leave once a year, now she has to readjust on a daily basis.
The fact this Pilot is unnamed is important, allowing her to stand in for a large group of people rather than being a lone individual. More interesting, however, is the way she behaves with her colleagues and with us, projecting a masculine persona when celebrating a win or going out for some beers. She hates the fact that she talks “like a mom now – a bullshit one” and is terrified her daughter will grow up to be a “hair tosser”. The highly male-dominated world of the army has made her act like a man. The drone, in a sense, is emasculating.
Throughout, Pilot talks of The Guilty and The Innocent as if they have no bearing on one another. She has been conditioned to think of Us and Them, which is necessary for survival when sat in the cockpit of a fighter jet but makes less sense when all you get is a grey image on a computer scene. Naturally, these distinctions become less clear throughout, as the distance helps her to comprehend the politics involved in the decisions, with the result of a quite harrowing twist at the end of the play. “Same war,” she says, “different desert”.
But the most interesting aspect of Grounded for me is its comment on surveillance and stealth. Unlike the thrill of live warfare, she here watches events unfold twice removed: “I fly a plane and stare at a screen that stares at the ground”. Throughout, surveillance features heavily, as her husband Eric works for security at the Pyramid in Vegas, meaning their jobs are far similar than they’d like to think. Her discourse when describing people being watched by the camera is much the same as CCTV camera operators, who often make snap decisions about individuals and judge based on appearance. The anonymity of being sat behind a screen means judgements have to be black and white. The turning point, however, comes when the Pilot looks up to a camera in a mall and realises that the person watching her could be all the way in India, as being on the other end of a device forces her to evaluate her position. This is all reinforced by Oliver Townsend’s translucent cube design, which allows us to see in without letting her see out; like those watching drone or CCTV cameras, we have the advantage.
Lucy Ellinson as the Pilot pretends for a long while that it is she who has the power, portraying confidence and gumption, but right from the off it’s clear this character is not as comfortable as she’d like us to think. She stops herself from feeling proud about mastering the drone quickly and has to shift her thoughts in an instant by imagining music. She always lives completely in the moment, until she adds everything up at the end. It’s a quite staggering performance, and one which builds steadily over the course of the play.
Chris Haydon’s production is one which allows all these aspects of the play to come to light, but it doesn’t just feel like a “good play done well” – it’s far more than this. Townsend’s cube and Mark Howland’s lighting both manage to feel both huge and tiny, and are calibrated smartly to allow us to re-engage with each moment. Add to that Tom Gibbons’ blaring, pumping soundtrack and you get a production which has all the excitement and energy of a battlefield, whilst maintaining all the humanity and character that this play needs to succeed. Grounded is a necessary, highly intelligent piece of theatre, and reminds us that, in the twenty-first century, “Everything is witnessed”.