In 2011’s Little Eagles, the RSC-produced opener of her proposed trilogy, Rona Munro explored the Soviet space programme not by focussing on its poster boy, Yuri Gagarin, but via the little-known rocket engineer Sergei Korolev, the pivotal individual whose name has been all but forgotten. In The Astronaut’s Chair she tackles the space race from the US perspective via similarly neglected characters – the female aviators who were investigated as potential astronauts by NASA and then abandoned as the Cold War stepped up a gear and the patriarchal mindset bedded in. By focussing on two remarkable women’s determination to strive further, faster and higher, Munro confronts the subjects of global politics, international competition and individual ambition with impressive subtlety, and puts centre stage an intergenerational female relationship of satisfying complexity.
Set between 1957 – when the ‘beep beep’ of Sputnik’s radio signals as it orbited the earth both mocked and terrorised the American scientific and military communities – and 1964, the play follows pilots Renee (Ingrid Lacey) and Jo (Eleanor Wyld) as they race to reach for the stars and become the first woman in space. A successful, wealthy businesswoman of incredible drive and resourcefulness, Renee is a first-class flyer and holder of world records in speed, altitude and all-round grit; now there is the chance to undergo astronaut training and she is more than ready. Up steps Jo, who is younger and potentially better, having already outstripped some of Renee’s records, and she too is ambitious to go higher. But then the Russians get Yuri into space and it’s not just about scientific exploration and achievement any more, it’s about war, and the female astronaut programme is cancelled. Battling NASA and Congress, and the belief that to put women at the front line of endeavour would harm the programme’s international renown, ultimately the women find themselves fighting a much more personal struggle – to be the first to sit at the one available chair at the table.
Although Munro stresses that this is not ‘a history play’, it is based on the true story of ‘The Mercury 13’, a group of female US pilots who were chosen to undergo suitability tests as astronauts, specifically Jerrie Cobb (the inspiration for Jo), as well as the pioneering aviator Jacqui Cochrane, an amazing individual who created a women’s air corps for America in WW2 and broke the sound barrier in a jet fighter in 1953. As in the play, the training programme was cancelled without warning, and when the fight to get it reinstated went all the way to the Senate and JFK, various spurious reasons were trotted out as to why the men were more suitably qualified. All horribly, disappointingly familiar.
For a play about such an expansive subject, it feels curiously static at times, although the dialogue is so elegant, so perfectly crafted and authentic, that this soon becomes one of the piece’s many strengths – the sense of quiet containment allows us to fully settle into the narrative’s intelligent handling of big ideas. Similarly, the set, with its desert floor and panels thrusting up into the darkness, simultaneously suggests the limitless ambition of space travel and the metaphorical and literal grounding of these women who dared to dream of competing in the same arena as men. The recurring ‘falling’ motif – Valentina Tereshkova joyously expressing her delight at flight, arms aloft, shouting ‘I know how to fall!’; Renee’s black-outs, her doctor advising her to ‘learn how to fall’ to prevent injury – suggests that while women should aspire to the highest achievements, reality requires an expectation of (and an in-built ability to bounce back from) hitting the ground hard.
It’s rare to see female power dynamics handled as subtly as they are here, and in Renee, Munro has created a fascinating and complex character – an older woman with real presence, depth and flaws – that must surely be a gift for an actor (and Ingrid Lacey does it complete justice). But then, Munro had a truly inspirational individual as her source material – and the play is all the more engrossing for that, and all the more admirable for getting this little-known story out there.