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Wednesday 7 May 2014

Grounded, by George Brant, directed by Christopher Hayden, Gate Theatre London, 8* out of 10

“The Pilot”, a woman combat pilot in the US Air force on return from pregnancy leave finds herself reassigned from flying F-16 to flying killer drones. This means working in a control centre outside Las Vegas in 8-hour shifts and returning home every day to the role of wife and mother. The changes in her private life, in the nature of her professional duties and in the manner in which her private and professional lives now interact, put her under enormous stress. Add to that the feeling of having been demoted and the loss of the more respected, fun activity of flying real planes. The Pilot has been grounded yet psychologically she now is up in the air  - increasingly losing her emotional and moral anchor.

“Grounded“ by the talented George Brant is a powerful piece of theatre about the effects on our emotional well-being of a job being emptied of meaning through the introduction of innovative technology. In this case the thrill of flying, the perceived danger, the reduced skill-requirements and the loss of seeing things in true colour. There is also the loss of social contact to one’s daredevil peers. These effects are being dangerously compounded by switching from war in Afghanistan to family life in Nevada in short shifts, sometimes boring, sometimes action packed. The play is presented as an intense monologue delivered by the protagonist herself from an enclosed space animated with explosive light and sound effects.  

This is strong psychological and political theatre designed to make you think from an unusual perspective – in this case about drone-warfare.  It seems that the intention was to underline the nefarious aspects of this combat technology. Although most of the audience seemed comfortably anti-war and anti-drone from the outset, paradoxically for me it did the opposite (but then I was rather pro-drone to begin with, although not generally pro-war).  The Pilot seems to be elated when she can kill suspected terrorists (and cause collateral damage) while having fun flying her F-16 fighter-jet; but when she’s ordered to do the same things more boringly with a drone, moral qualms seem to appear for the first time (of course she has a young daughter now, too, whom she sees every day).  Making defending us against our enemies boring and less enjoyable to our military men and women seems progress to me; this way violent action is more likely only to be taken when there is good reason to do so. Furthermore, the idea that drone “pilots” are out of range of counter attacks and therefore drone warfare is inherently unfair is widespread. This is a fallacy though; just because a target is in the USA (or anywhere else in the West), does not mean that terrorists, militants, or enemy soldiers will be unable to reach it.

In any event, “Grounded” makes you think (in a worthwhile way) and is the kind of production that has made me a regular traveller from my home on the European continent to the London’s smaller theatres, such as the Gate (the Finborough, the Tricycle, the Arcola, the King’s Head to name but a few).  It is a compelling, relevant piece of new writing, skilfully directed by the Gate Theatre’s Artistic Director Christopher Hayden, and energetically acted by a focused, committed and quite believable Lucy Ellinson. The creative team responsible for the set, the sound, light and video have made an excellent contribution to the impact of this play on a rapt audience; worth a trip to Notting Hill for those who like new writing with a social and political message.

Since I originally wrote my review, the play has moved to Washington DC and in an interesting article on drone warfare The Economist very fittingly refers to it.  Here the link to the Economist article:

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