Review: Grounded (Gate Theatre)

Lucy Ellinson revives her role as a pilot who returns to the air force to fly drones after having a child

First seen in 2013, this is something of a homecoming for Grounded: a third-time revival of the hugely acclaimed one-woman show at the Gate, as part of artistic director Christopher Haydon‘s final season. Although Anne Hathaway has done the play in the US, and is making a movie of it, Lucy Ellinson was the original star, and is here returning to a part she’s clearly made her own. She plays, with both subtlety and vigour, an American fighter pilot who, after maternity leave, returns to the air force only to be assigned to pilot unmanned drones.

Back in 2013, drone warfare was a particularly hot-topic issue, the morality of it much debated in the public sphere. Today, they’re almost just accepted as part of the landscape of modern warfare, the debate gone off the boil; a joke in Grounded that they "don’t make drones in Fisher-Price" almost obsolete, given the popularity of toy drones. But the question of what effect on international conflicts, and on the individual human psyche, such remote, precision-targeted warfare without personal cost may have is still one which George Brant’s play sharply reminds us we should be asking.

Contained in a grey gauze box, Ellinson addresses the audience on three sides; it’s a simple staging of a riveting, jet-propelled monologue. The pilot has swagger: she loves her job, loves her uniform, loves flying up in "the blue". Loves taking down the enemy, too, and beers with the boys after. Ellinson switches between a low-slung swagger and a military stance, the masculine body language of a woman who’s always held her own with the guys.

Even when she’s falling in love and having a kid, the "corn" that love brings is mocked. The pilot is a tough cookie turned busy working mom. But when she’s assigned to the "chair force", piloting drones from inside a dark caravan in the Las Vegas desert, she begins to lose something of herself. In 12 hour shifts, she stares at a screen showing the "grey putty" of the desert, as they search out military-aged men to bomb.

Ellinson embodies the changes of first the pilot’s work, and then her mental state. Her voice mocks the robotic nature of the task, she complains about the monotony of grey compared to the exhilaration of blue, while her body assumes the rigid position of someone sat at a screen all day. But when the kills come, they turn out to be just as white-knuckle – even when knowing "the threat of death has been removed". And afterwards, she just goes home, to her husband and child. There’s all the adrenaline of combat, but none of the release. Ellinson begins to wind up, like a ticking time-bomb.

Drone technology also allows the pilot to not only get a closer look at targets, but to "linger" and watch the full, limb-tearing destruction. She becomes increasingly fixated on finding, and annihilating, "the guilty", smiting them like some Old Testament God. The toll such warfare takes, and the moral conflict of seeing more destruction while being further removed, are very gradually ratcheted up in Brant’s script and Haydon’s hair-trigger sensitive production. Finally, the pilot detonates, in a truly gripping, unsettling climax.

Grounded runs at the Gate Theatre until 18 March.