Have you ever spent a bit too long in front of your computer screen? Just that little extra that you go a bit nuts? That you start thinking, dreaming even, in computer-screen format? Then spare a thought for those flying American Unmanned Aerial Vehicles; the drone planes flying over countries halfway around the globe from their pilots, on 40-hour missions. Sympathy for the Devil indeed.
American playwright George Brant brings stacks of meticulous research to horrifying life in his one-woman monologue, Grounded. An alpha-female, F-16 pilot, finding herself accidentally pregnant takes time out to have her baby, but when she returns she discovers her beloved air force has been changed beyond recognition by the new drone technology. F-16s are yesterday's news, today's drone target practice. The real war now, the war which hasn't even been declared, is being fought from a bank of computers in the Nevada desert, an hour's drive out of Vegas. And you fight it by staring at grey images on a computer screen for 12-hour shifts, before driving back to your young family.
And Christopher Haydon's production of the Brant's snappy, slippery, poetic, stark text is about as close to perfection as it's possible to imagine. Designer Oliver Townsend has placed performer Lucy Ellinson inside a (beautifully realised) small gauze-walled cubic room. We can see in but she can't see out.
What's remarkable is the degree to which Ellinson manages to perform *through* these walls. It feels like there's still eye-contact where there can obviously be none. She's staring at a wall, and yet you feel pinned by her gaze.
Beyond this neat trick, Ellinson's ability to turn emotional states on a pinhead is remarkable, snapping between arrogance and grief or love and contempt like a raging strobe light. Combined with Mark Howland's simple-but-perfect lighting, Tom Gibbons' deftly realised sound design and the extra dimension of Benjamin Walden's subtle video work, playing on the floor beneath Ellinson's feet, this is one of those productions where you sometimes find yourself repeatedly taken aback by how well it's being done at the same time as being sucked further into what's it's doing.
As a whole, Grounded is a powerful, hallucinogenic experience. What makes it imperative viewing is that, rather than being some sci-fi dystopia, everything in Grounded is an urgent, appalling reality: an ethical minefield about which a great deal more noise needs to be made immediately.
- Andrew Haydon
Grounded continues at the Traverse until 25 August. It runs at the Gate Theatre in London from 28 August-21 September.