In George Brant’s monologue, Grounded, we’re introduced to The Pilot with her feet firmly on the ground. Relegated to the “Chair Force” that guides America’s unmanned drones, Brand’s lone character is both physically grounded, and punitively so; sanctioned because of her maternal leave, The Pilot is kept indoors like a misbehaving youth. Taking the part with a fiery, resolute spirit, Lucy Ellinson is the intelligent rebel who battles against her new position, the Major who becomes a omnipotent eye in the sky, and the troubled wife and mother who crumbles as her home life develops the same grey hues as the remote and Guilty individuals she watches from a screen.
With humane force, Ellinson launches Brant’s featherlight argument. Armed with a broad, transparent friendliness she treats us to a torrid of cynicism, which targets her own happy family (“All that true corn/ true cheese”), her new position within the armed forces (ridiculing herself for being the pilot who needs a parking space) and “some Beatles circus thing” she caught on Las Vegas’s Strip. But Ellinson also communicates the grand romanticism of her character. With eyes darting, she remembers the blue of the sky when her job was in the air. Bearing a similar energy, she appreciates her husband, dotes on her child and cracks open a beer with her former colleagues.
Gradually, Ellinson overcomes her initial reluctance to fight from afar, and brings this charged, fleeting romanticism to her new remote-controlled aircraft. Uttering a playfully whispered “Boom”, she eliminates lives in a timezone twelve hours away, without fear of personal repercussion. There’s a certain joy here, a fluid ease. It not comfortable material but Ellinson captivates. As The Pilot’s family adopts the grey of the surveillance screen and those on the screen adopt the characteristics of the familiar (and familial) American life, the actor toys with Brant’s jarring visions of drones being a necessary part of traditional combat, and a cowardly way of eliminating the enemy without the fear of death.
It’s an excellent play, gently digging a form of anaesthetised warfare, that removes the person from the battlefield. Knotted into its subtle meditations on the philosophy and ethics of war, Brant’s work gives utterances that are incredibly witty and measured, seen as The Pilot moves to work in an Air Force base in Nevada “The fear of death has been removed from our lives / Viva / Viva / Viva Las Vegas”.
The Gate’s production rises to the complexity of the script. Responding to the instructions of the playwright to make the design more abstract than literal, “reinforcing The Pilot’s mental landscape”, Oliver Townsend locates the performer within an imprisoning cube of gauze. On the base of this box, video effects transport Ellinson from aerial views to disco floors. Similarly, echoing The Pilot’s rock-star pride and rebelliousness and tapping into the rhythm of a play that, on page, is like poetry, punk rock and drum ‘n’ bass blast from the speakers. At another point, AC-DC complements a thoroughly electric set as the character drives towards her comparably peaceful Sin City. As Ellinson rocks around her restricting box, Christopher Haydon’s direction brilliantly encapsulates the unhinging routine that swings with temporal equality, and psychological blurs, between bunker in the desert and family life.