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Review: Drones, Baby, Drones (Arcola Theatre)

Nicholas Kent and Mehmet Ergen direct two plays about drones

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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"To the United States, a drone strike seems to have very little risk and very little pain." So said the former US Army general Stanley McChrystal in an interview. "At the receiving end, it feels like war. Americans have got to understand that."

This is the essence of drone warfare: death delivered from a distance. It chills because it is so detached. To kill without contact, at such little personal cost, seems godlike and unnatural. Drones makes war seem casual, easy, remote – a virtual reality. In changing the nature of war, they raise all manner of issues – ethical, political, technological.

Director Nicholas Kent's curated collections, short plays spliced with verbatim material, have come at complex subjects from a range of angles. The Great Game, for example, dug deep into Afghanistan's history of conflict. Drones, Baby Drones follows the same formula, but with only two shorts and a single interviewee, it feels a little too like a fly-by. That the two plays overlap on so many points rather disarms them and the complexity of their subject.

Intercut with interview material from Clive Stafford-Smith, director of Repreive, the pair examine those involved in the process of drone warfare. This Tuesday, by Ron Hutchinson and Christina Lamb and directed by Kent, pulls together members of the National Security team responsible for making decisions about individual targets each week, while David Greig's The Kid shows us the drone operators responsible for pressing the button marked fire.

Greig's is the better of the two. The Kid, directed by Mehmet Ergen, takes us into an all-American living room, where two drone operators and their partners are toasting a successful mission. It is a queasy sight: the home comforts of these suburban 'soldiers,' their raising a glass over a death 10,000 miles away; just co-workers celebrating a good day. Tom McKay's Pete is jockish about the job; Shawna (Anne Adams), his flying partner, is more stoic and sombre, expressionless even.

The play picks at the discomfiture of drone warfare well: from its relationship with storytelling, as images that need interpreting, to the flippancy of those firing the missiles. Pete's pre-shot ritual involves reciting The Crazy World of Arthur Brown: 'I am the Lord of Hellfire…' Greig tunes into the peculiarities of a world in which people are either pixels or processing units, that can only afford to see children as "collateral." Death has gotten easier, but having kids – making a life – has gotten harder.

It's rather undercut by coming second. This Tuesday pre-empts a lot of the same issues. Following members of the President's advisory team ahead of their weekly meeting, it asks how people can possibly make objective life-or-death decisions? Their messy, human, everyday lives – their moods, their mistakes, their misgivings – all feed into the room. Maxine (Adams) has come from her daughter's hospital bed, following a late night car crash. Doug (McKay), from a motel room nearby, after a night with his mistress. It hinges on parallels with that crash: a chance event, not predetermined, that comes from a confluence of objects, just as the meeting does people.

For all its schlocky, American soap opera-ish tone, and the flatness of Kent's own direction, This Tuesday does lay out the case for drones against the horror they present. They make war more precise, less indiscriminate, albeit with the danger of abuse, error and a slippery slope as they become more accurate and more readily available. Overall, Drones, Baby, Drones could use more of that, especially in its verbatim elements – another view to counter Stafford's voice of caution.

Drones, Baby Drones runs at the Arcola Theare until 26 November.