Edinburgh Fringe 2013
She’s a hot-rod F16 fighter pilot. She’s pregnant. Her career in the sky is over. Now, she sits in an air-conditioned trailer in Las Vegas flying remote-controlled drones over Pakistan. She struggles through surreal twelve-hour shifts far from the battlefield – hunting terrorists by day and being a wife and mother by night.
Coming out of the theatre last night there were no words, I just felt raw and emotional. However, as it is my job, I now have to force myself to find voice to write about this complex, brutal, harrowing and moving performance.
Grounded is a monologue from a modern day fighter pilot. Flying their plane over the deserts of Afgahnistan, up there in the ‘blue’, shooting missiles down onto the enemy, they are tough, fearsome and respected. Our pilot is a patriot, fighting the war against terror, flying in the exhilarating theatre of combat, one of the boys. Until she gets pregnant. But this isn’t really a play about how difficult it is to be a woman in the army. It is not a feminist rant against sexism and patriarchy in the armed forces. It is really about love, family, the trials of modern warfare and on a fundamental level, humanity.
Lucy Ellinson plays the pilot and is spectacular. Here is an actress at the top of her game. Her energy, the shades of light and dark, and her character progression are masterful. She has managed to create a character of true depth, her butch femininity as she describes the excitement of war contrasting eloquently with tenderness towards her child and love for her husband. This excellent portrayal is in no small part also down to George Brant’s writing. The idiom, the flow, the highs and lows of the piece are almost poetic, but with a raw brutality that brings the audience viscerally into the present.
With the advent of drones; unmanned planes, loaded with missiles and cameras, the life of a fighter pilot has become dramatically different. No longer the Top-Gun esque heroes of battle, shooting through the hot, cloudless skies at the controls of a powerful machine, they are now in front of a grey screen in an air-conditioned trailer in the Nevada desert, part of the ‘chair-force’. Thousands of miles and twelve hours behind their targets, with just a touch of a button they can wipe out a jeep or strafe a group of military-age males with hot fire and linger to watch the grey flames dance. Grounded really interrogates the effects of this new type of warfare on those who fly these planes, examines the difficulty of transitioning from the battlefield to home, every single day. Looks at the toll it takes to be burdened with classified information; the exhilaration of a successful mission, or the boredom of a day of nothing, yet be able to tell your partner nothing, not even able to have a drink with the boys after work, as everyone is on different shifts in their separate trailers.
The ending is powerful, the ending is terrible, and the message is subtle yet strong. This play had the power to invoke a depth of feeling in its audience that is a rare and special thing. The staging was impressive and unusual – a block of cloth walls in which the performer was enclosed, cleverly lit to be transparent for the audience looking through them, yet forming a seemingly solid screen behind. It was open and clear when it needed to be, yet claustrophobic at other times, with projections on the floor giving the sense of flight and height.
Grounded must be seen. It is sold out at the Traverse for the rest of the festival, but there may be returns, and following the fringe it transfers to the Gate in London. It is a play with a political point, but told with such depth and feeling that it becomes a thing of beauty.