Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Grounded, Traverse Theatre

Review: Grounded, Traverse Theatre

It’s a smart show that makes you nostalgic for good old, straightforward shock-and-awe fighter jets. George Brant’s Grounded, which speeds past like a fly by, is a febrile critique of drone warfare and its detached, dislocated terms of (dis)engagement. Actually, that’s just its most obvious front; there’s a network of supporting lines behind it that make Grounded a meticulous assessment of a digital culture methodically detaching itself from reality.

Lucy Ellinson plays an American F16 fighter pilot, named only as The Pilot. She’s a hand-horns, cropped hair, speed-freak kind of girl and she loves nothing more than soaring into “the blue.” She’s $1 million worth of training and talks of life in military terminology. She meets Eric and falls in love. “Something’s breached,” she says.

And now, she’s pregnant and grounded and, by the time she’s ready to return to work, she’s ushered into “the chair-force,” part of a team based in Las Vegas controlling a Reaper UAV – unmanned aerial vehicle, a drone. It’s a good thing, right? She gets to spend more time with the family. The threat of death is gone – at least for her – but also, theoretically, from the innocent bystanders caught by bomb-blasts. This is 21st Century warfare: efficient and ethical. Well, at least, if you judge it by ends alone.

Means are a different matter, though, and Brant makes much of the disquiet that surrounds drone warfare. This is an entirely different category of war: remote, precision-targeted and overseen from a god’s-eye-view. It’s not simply a matter of firing at a target. A drone strike is like switching them off. You wait until the right moment, the moment of near-as-damnit certainty, and you terminate a life. Just like that. This is “not combat,” says the pilot. It’s “not a fair fight.” It’s like gaming. Death delivered over a twelve hour time difference with a 1.2 second delay.

Though he captures it’s nature beautifully – Brant’s real argument is less about drone-warfare than about an excessively digitised culture. The pilot’s life consists of a desk-job staring at a pixelated, greyscale desert, a drive to and from home and an evening in front of a television screen. Her sex life wilts. She becomes lethargic. The blue of her old life has become grey. Brant argues that we’re becoming drones ourselves: automata tapping buttons under constant surveillance that makes any notion of freewill redundant.

Christopher Haydon’s production is a beautifully woven thing, that leaves most of its commentary to Oliver Townsend’s super-smart design and gets on with delivering an electrifying (and superbly played) production. Townsend encases Ellinson in a grey gauze cube and, in doing so, disrupts the spatial relationship between us. Moreover, though she seems to address us directly, Ellinson can’t see us: she’s performing to no-one, to herself in a one-way cell. It’s a remarkable bit of thinking in space.

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