Out of the blue: Red Stitch’s Grounded

George Brant’s Grounded is an aggressive and provocative monologue. While you could almost call it a poem in many respects, or perhaps a poetic monologue, what you notice first is its language – its command of it, as much as the voice it is spoken by (or written for); and from the first moments, you are pushed back in your seat by the G-force of this play as it hurtles through the sky of the Seymour Centre’s Reginald theatre over the course of eighty tense minutes.
First produced in 2013, and presented here by Melbourne-based company Red Stitch Actors Theatre, this production of Grounded is riveting and mesmerising. While essentially the story of a fighter pilot in the US military who becomes pregnant and is reassigned to piloting drones, this is merely the set-up for Brant’s play. What Brant explores – and what the production, directed by Kirsten von Bibra, does so well – is show the psychological effects of this relocation on the pilot (she is never named), how hard it is for her to readjust to the mindset and pressures of remote-control drone operation.

While Matthew Adey’s design forgoes any temptation to distraction, he gives us instead a large boxed-in space reminiscent of a caravan or an aircraft hangar backed by a clear white cyc; alongside von Bibra’s direction and Brandt’s forceful text, the cumulative effect is to focus on the woman first and her job second. The pilot, played with guts and relish by Kate Cole, might come across as arrogant and self-important, but underneath the bravado and swagger is a woman who is trying to distance herself from the full impact of what she is doing, trying to separate her job from her personal life, whilst realising it is not that easy or simple anymore. Elizabeth Drake’s sound design and composition is, appropriately enough, comprised of a series of drones and electronic sounds, which ebb and build, to tremendous effect. While other productions (like the high-tech one currently playing on Broadway) might be more visually immersive, I’d argue that the true immersion comes from the sparseness, comes from placing this woman alone in a [man’s] world where there is no place for sentiment, emotion, or feeling; where you sit for twelve hours a day piloting a remote aircraft, on a high-profile mission to eradicate a target. What we see is harrowing, haunting – we watch as Cole strides about the stage like a caged animal, hunting, searching, desperate; we see her try to distance herself from the reality of her job (flying unmanned drones in a remote desert war with the potential to kill at the press of a button), trying to separate being a mother from the cold detachedness of her career. We see her begin to question everything, as she bottles her stress and frustration, internalising it all, becoming more and more withdrawn from herself and her family… Cleverly, smartly, Von Bibra punctuates Brant’s script with moments where Cole’s Pilot is silhouetted against the cyc, saturated in coloured light. The Pilot – now a nameless, faceless woman; an everywoman – takes on the shape of a fighter plane and she is, for a moment, free, where she belongs: in the bigness of the sky, far away from the troubles and concerns of her life and her job.
While Brant’s script is full of astute observations and smart lines, one in particular stands out: “think how different The Odyssey would have been if Odysseus had returned home at the end of each day,” The Pilot says. It’s a simple line, but the sentiment – the gesture – behind it speaks volumes. Our lives are too interconnected, he seems to be saying, and we can’t always find the ‘off’ switch, even if we do our utmost to find it. Brant also draws startling parallels between the desert war in the Middle East, and what is happening to The Pilot in her own life – her car is the same model as her target’s; her target has a daughter like she does; she lives and works in a desert same as her target – and suggests that we could be living in the same desert fighting the same war, or a different war in the same desert… Perhaps the distinctions don’t matter, but rather we are all interconnected; there are never any true victors, only victims, just as there is no right or wrong, good or bad; only people, humans, the same as ourselves. By fighting in a distant country, we are only ignoring the fight going on at home. Same war, different desert.

As Brant’s play reaches its climax, and punches us in the gut, its hard not to feel the full effect of his words, of the implications of his words. While monologues like this are not uncommon, it is rare to find one so compelling, so assured, so forceful, that you cannot look away, not even for a second.

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