American playwright George Brant’s Grounded is a searing one-woman play which achieves many things; artistically and politically. It asks questions; it thrills with a finely crafted narrative; it offers insights. But what it does, most impressively, is put a face on modern warfare.
An unnamed fighter pilot tells the audience about her life as “top gun”; she loves “the blue” and the rush and power that her job brings. When she discovers she’s pregnant, she’s taken out of the sky and into maternity leave. Everything in her life is perfect – the perfect daughter and the perfect partner – but she misses “the blue” and needs to return to the Air Force.
When she does, she discovers that she won’t be returning to the cockpit. She’s to be part of the “chair force”, as one of the officers who pilot military drones (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – UAVs) safe from the comfort of a caravan in a military base. She spends 12 hours a day staring at a grey screen, piloting an aircraft thousands of miles away, before returning home to her partner and new daughter every night. She feels power and authority as the “eye in the sky”, able to see all happening below. But soon enough, the job begins to take its toll.
Brant has found the human drama in a situation which is so deliberately separated from human emotion. He tells a new war narrative, which is miles apart from our traditional conceptions of the frontline of battle. What if Odysseus had returned home from war every night for dinner? The Odyssey would have been a very different story, the pilot says.
Kate Cole simply doesn’t put a foot wrong as the unnamed pilot. She’s compellingly powerful in the opening of the play, bringing the swagger of a “top gun”. When the trauma and stress and disorientating forces of her job take hold, Cole takes the audience through her entire downfall, step by step and moment by moment. She’s been pushed too far, but this is no histrionic portrayal of mental illness; it’s a finely drawn portrait of a mind taken to the edge. She delivers one of the greatest performances you’re likely to see on an Australian stage this year; raw, nuanced and heart-wrenchingly visceral.
Director Kirsten von Bibra has stripped back the production to a raw minimum, and, with Cole, has created a textured and well-paced performance. Set and lighting designer Matthew Adey has created a pale grey box for Cole to perform within. It could be the interior of the caravan, it could be an aircraft hangar, or it could be “the blue”. Composer Elizabeth Drake has provided an eerie and atmospheric soundscape.
The play runs 80 minutes with just one woman on a blank stage, but it feels much shorter. Brant’s script shines in the details – as the pilot returns from the dessert, her car radio turns from static to AC/DC – but it’s as streamlined and as efficient as the drones he’s writing about.
It’s one of the hottest plays of the year, with 10 productions around the world since it premiered in Scotland 10 months ago. It offers a glimpse into a world behind closed doors; a world where the language of policy obscures the reality of a situation. It never feels overtly political because the story is so personal, but Brant grapples with big questions in the minutiae. We all know what a drone is, we all know what it does and, basically, how it operates. But how many of us know what it actually means?
Modern warfare is a bit of a mystery, but we deserve to know what’s being done in our name. Grounded is not to be missed.