George Brant’s Grounded is a play to be celebrated. It gives us one of the most interesting and complex female characters to grace a stage in years. From the moment we first see Lucy Ellinson’s pilot, standing in the translucent box that is at once her platform and her cage, bored and unbothered by the beneath-her-notice civilians filing into the theatre to the soundtrack of the pounding heavy metal she adores, she is an utterly compelling presence, and over the course of the piece her character reveals herself to be funny, fierce, bright and uncompromising, yet full of contradictions and surprises.
A rock star woman in what is still a man’s war, she delights in her role flying F16s – she relishes the freedom of being up ‘in the blue’ and enjoys drinking beer and letting off steam as much as the men she works with, though there is a sense that despite this one-of-the-guys camaraderie she gets an unspoken thrill from the separateness her gender gives her, that it makes her much more than the average girl. Unabashedly arrogant at being ‘top shit’, she is wonderfully bawdy and unapologetically sexual, happy to fuck some bloke she meets in a bar just for fun. Only, oops, then she gets pregnant, and since morning sickness and high altitude don’t mix, she reluctantly takes her maternity leave and is reassigned away from the front line. Where she once soared alone above the battle, she is now part of a deskbound tag-team piloting drones from a concrete bunker in Vegas. The war has become the office: 12 hour shifts looking at a monitor and then home to put her daughter to bed.
A lazier writer might have made this change in circumstance reveal the ‘real’ woman behind the braggadocio façade, but Brant’s script is as precisely honed as a military strike, sharply delineating each facet of her personality in recognition that one side does not cancel the other; that the rowdy, gung-ho warrior can be tenderly protective over her sentimental husband; that she can be a doting mother while still being bored by pink ponies and despairing that her daughter might turn out to be a ‘hair tosser’ so different from her tomboy self. She can both embrace and chafe at daily domesticity and life in the ‘chair force’, realise she is blessed to fight a war at no risk, but miss the danger anyway.
It is this grasp of the contradictions in both the personal and political that make Grounded so gripping. It recognises the intoxicating glamour of war – the Top Gun myth of elite fighter pilots dispatching an inferior enemy with hard earned skills – while reminding us that today’s battles are run at long-distance by scientists and accountants, and death is delivered by remote control with a 1.2 second delay, the full-colour Cinemascope of a war fought up close reduced to anonymous grey goo on a small screen. The ‘headset gods’ see all and sit in judgement, pronouncing innocence or guilt on ‘military aged males’ who live or die at the push of a button (their main crimes, it seems, being unfortunate enough to be military aged males in a country under siege). If such casualties remain faceless, it’s also easy to see those raining fire upon them as undifferentiated cogs in the uncaring behemoth that is the Western military machine: but this woman could be any one of us. She is proud when her job goes well (the pilot’s cockiness glimpsed as she tells us her male colleagues crashed their test drones, she did not), frustrated by long, boring shifts and, like anyone who works in a field dominated by technology, bemused to suddenly be in a job where 19 year olds can be considered industry veterans.
At its core, this is a more a well observed personality piece than a nuanced examination of modern warfare, but it’s no worse for that. It’s tightly directed by Christopher Haydon, who makes the most of Oli Townsend’s simple but strikingly effective set, and elicits a blistering performance from Ellinson, who balances the swagger and vulnerability of the role without falling into the trap of making the latter seem the necessary price to pay for the former. It’s not overly subtle in its messages, in its fear that in a world where everyone is being observed and judged, we are all at risk of being pronounced guilty by anonymous bureaucrats who rule our lives at a safe remove, but the witty, often very funny, writing prevents it from being bogged down, from feeling overly worthy.
It’s a shame, then, that such an original piece of work ultimately bows to cliché in making the pilot’s maternal instincts her downfall – as if the only reason one could be upset at watching a child being blown to pieces is to be a mother oneself, which in turn suggests that non-parents might be able to observe such brutality without flinching. But while this makes the ending feel slightly forced, it’s a small thing, a misstep, in a what is a very powerful production.