Concentration. Speed. Accuracy. A fighter pilot needs these skills to survive and thrive in the deadly arena of battle, but even these all come to naught without a steely determination to kill. The affect of the kill on the pilot is rarely interrogated, and surely never as brilliantly as in George Brant’s one-woman play Grounded.
The pilot [played here with almost unending pathos and force by Red Stitch founding member Kate Cole] is a quintessential ‘top gun’, a ruler of the skies, jocular and in control. Fighting in an unnamed war zone that is nevertheless clearly Iraq or Afghanistan, she is at once diligently focused on her missions and alive to the Zen-like sense of freedom that ‘the blue’ provides.
When she falls pregnant to her devoted partner Eric and takes time off to have her baby, the hiatus provides some domestic relief from the murderous pressure of battle. Soon, though, she is longing to get back into the skies. She returns to work only to discover that the military has moved on from fighter jets, and now requires her to operate drones.
For 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, the pilot drives through the Nevada desert to a high-tech caravan, where she operates a simulacrum of a plane, remotely executing ‘the guilty’ combatants crossing unknown desert thousands of miles away. She then drives home to her husband and child each night, and tries to live a normal life.
Brant uses a rolling stream of consciousness to build a sense of growing moral panic, in the audience as much as in the pilot herself. The horror of detachment is palpable throughout and, as the pilot’s sense of reality begins to crumble, the utter inhumanity of modern warfare starts to take on an almost biblical resonance.
For such a tightly focused play, the scope and range of imagery is marvelous. The colours blue and grey are used to chilling effect. The eye represents surveillance as much as God. Screens abound, their banality and their remove. Everything feels charged and pregnant with meaning, and the effect is dazzling.
Kate Cole is extraordinary as the pilot. Balancing a posturing, ostensibly masculine bravado with an empathetic and sensual maternity, her warring inner state is both symbolic and credibly human. The performance crackles with barely contained tension and animosity, but is mercurial enough to let in humour and light.
The direction [by Kirsten Von Bibra] is rich and textured, sensitive to the moments of intimacy but soaring and unafraid in the passages of action. The set and lighting [Matthew Adey] are superb, a concrete bunker so grounded it could be subterranean that is, nonetheless, capable of representing sheer sky. The sound design [Elizabeth Drake] adds menace and meaning.
As our societies move closer to total globalisation, the drawbacks become more apparent just as the benefits disappear into the distance. Our inability to reconcile the personal with the political, our terrifying detachment from the consequences of our actions, the inhumanity of our increasingly ubiquitous machinery, all threaten to unmoor us from our essential compassion. Adding considerable insight to this debate, Grounded is a deeply felt, brilliantly executed clarion call to our better natures, and makes for unforgettable theatre.
Red Stitch Theatre, Rear 2 Chapel Street, East St. Kilda
Season continues to 12 July 2014
Bookings: (03) 9533 8083 or online at: www.redstitch.net
For more information, visit: www.redstitch.net for details.
Image: Kate Cole – photo by Jodie Hutchinson
Review: Tim Byrne