Reviews OWE & FringePerformance Published 9 September 2013

Grounded

Gate Theatre ⋄ 28th August - 28th September 2013

Fight or flight.

Diana Damian Martin

This pilot has an attitude that commands authority, a strong sense of duty and an implacable fear of all things pink. She speaks with experience of the surge of adrenaline that comes when one takes to the skies, of drinking with her mates after battle, of the freedom she feels as a US fighter pilot hovering over Iraq. Then she meets a man, gets pregnant and married, has a little girl, and moves to Las Vegas to work as a drone pilot from a desk in the Nevada desert. In her new life,  routine soon begins to take its toll, drowning her in the thick dull grey of a screen and the maddening wait for attack from a distance.

Grounded is a striking piece of monologue theatre whose playful underlying discourses – the nature of contemporary conflict, its psychological and personal impact – are made more vivid and moving by Lucy Ellinson’s thrilling, infectious and painstakingly nuanced performance as the female pilot.

We observe her in a cube onstage, the thick grey mesh scrawling our gaze. Caffeinated, energised and embodying the narrative she so carefully leads us through, her eyes loaded, her body expressive, Ellinson fleshes out the crux of George Brant’s play: the conflict between internal and external, domestic and public. She makes what might otherwise be a relatively literal relationship to text, into a very embodied narrative. In one particularly evocative moment, the Nevada Desert stretches ahead of her like a canvas that seemingly ruptures the tedium of the pilot’s new routine; as she passes a makeshift graveyard in the thick dust of the desert, she turns a place of renewal into a symbol of psychological imprint.

Yet it takes more than an engaging narrative to make potent political theatre – and whilst Brant’s play navigates a problematic terrain with dramatic skill, aided by Christopher Haydon’s sharp direction and eye for detail and Oliver Townsend’s minimal design, Grounded is let down by its polemic, in the way it attempts to represent rather than interrogate. It’s an incredibly evocative play; the unbearable routine of drone warfare, its wider politics and implications, and the domesticity of conflict itself are all brought to the fore, yet at the expense of both specificity and character.

The pilot that we’ve engaged with on so many levels for the first half of the production merely becomes a device; her downfall is so smooth, progressive and uneventful that dramaturgically, the play’s own political discourse weakens as a result. The key trait of Ellinson’s performance – the deliberately jarring character traits, the progressive inconsistencies that cloud the pilot’s life – is what makes her performance so strong, but it’s also what’s missing from the production itself. In that sense, Grounded is battling a rather stark theatricality that doesn’t suit its subject or prompt the debate it should be prompting. Its deliberate claustrophobia remains illustrative rather than inquisitive; a shame in light of the skill and precision with which it is enacted.

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Diana Damian Martin

Diana Damian Martin is a London-based performance critic, curator and theorist. She writes about theatre and performance for a range of publications including Divadlo CZ, Scenes and Teatro e Critica. She was Managing Editor of Royal Holloway's first practice based research publication and Guest Editor for postgraduate journal Platform between 2012-2015. She is co-founder of Writingshop, a long term collaborative project with three European critics examining the processes and politics of contemporary critical practice, and a member of practice-based research collective Generative Constraints. She is completing her doctoral study 'Criticism as a Political Event: theorising a practice of contemporary performance criticism' at Royal Holloway, University of London and is a Lecturer in Performance Arts at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

Grounded Show Info


Directed by Christopher Haydon

Written by George Brant

Cast includes Lucy Ellinson

Link http://gatetheatre.co.uk/

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