The narrator of George Brant’s gripping monologue is in many ways a typical worker. She gets up early, drops her kid at nursery, drives the long commute to work a 12-hour day. After work she drives home, kisses her daughter goodnight, has dinner with her husband. So far, so ordinary. The nature of her employment, however, is a little less typical. Her job? A drone pilot, overseeing strikes hundreds of miles away from a small grey monitor. Going into war and then going home.
This bizarre balance of conflict and domesticity is just one of the many tensions powering Brant’s tightly written and meticulously researched play. His unnamed protagonist is a former F16 fighter pilot, who is forced to give up the thrilling blue expanse of the skies when she falls unexpectedly pregnant. Returning to work after having her daughter, she’s directed not to a plane, but to a chair in an office. Moving to Las Vegas with her family, she drops bombs on the other side of the world from the middle of the Nevada desert; a horrifying triumph of automated combat with its control station at the apex of capitalist greed.
Although, as Lucy Ellinson’s Pilot tells us, “the threat of death has been removed”, dropping bombs from the safety of a trailer can be no less traumatic than fighting on the front line. The experience is like gaming – pilots are unable to tell the difference between operating genuine and simulated drones – but the consequences are deadly real. To add to this distortion of reality, time and space are rendered fluid by the drone’s terrifying technology, which can respond within 1.2 seconds while flying over a desert with a 12-hour time difference. This is death with a delay; the responsibility for one’s actions might be set at one remove, but it still creeps up eventually, as it does for the nightmare-plagued narrator. There’s even something slightly removed yet still searing about Ellinson’s extraordinary performance, which marries an edge of self-awareness with pulse-quickening intensity – as though both caught in the moment and looking on simultaneously.
The distance involved in drone warfare is built into the very substance of Christopher Haydon’s taut, thrilling production. For the duration of the piece, Ellinson is contained within the sealed grey cube of Oliver Townsend’s inspired set design, physically fenced off from the audience. The space seems to expand and contract with the narrative, as Ellinson prowls it with invincible swagger at one moment and presses her hands against its imprisoning surface in another, while the grid of screens beneath her feet pulses and flares. This cube, with its two-way translucent sides, also serves to create the same relationship between the audience and Ellinson as between the Pilot and those she observes below. We can see her, but she can’t see us.
While the psychological impact of drone technology demands emotional heft, it is the notion of surveillance that is most fascinating and disturbing. The Pilot positions herself in a role of godlike judgement, deciding on the fates of the Innocent and the Guilty (both declared with the infallible implication of capital letters) from her “eye in the sky”. But the more she watches, the more she becomes aware of being watched – “there’s always a camera, right?” One of the most powerful and unsettling moments of the piece emerges from a simple trip to the shopping mall, during which the Pilot becomes increasingly conscious of the CCTV cameras surrounding her and her daughter, wondering how many miles away those behind the monitors are watching from. Whether in conflict or commerce, constant surveillance and outsourced labour are endemic.
And in a society where “everything is witnessed”, Grounded leaves its audience – like its sealed-in protagonist – without an escape route. Though it might occasionally sound like a dystopian nightmare, Brant’s urgent subject is all too real, a fact that this production powerfully reminds us of by turning attention back to its audience. Made complicit, we have no choice but to look in at this figure who cannot look out; to watch, as we ourselves are constantly observed.