Since its 2013 premiere, Grounded (by award-winning US playwright George Brant) has had over 140 productions in 19 countries and has been translated into 12 languages. Last year, New York’s Metropolitan Opera announced its plans to stage an opera based on Grounded, written by composer Jeanine Tesori (best known for her work on the Tony Award-winning Best Musical, Fun Home).
Brant’s play is also the piece chosen to launch National Theatre of Parramatta’s 2019 season. In Grounded, a tough and audacious F16 fighter pilot (Emily Havea) is forced to stop flying when she becomes pregnant unexpectedly. She gives birth to a daughter, Sam, and establishes a family home with the child’s father, Eric. Eventually, she returns to the Air Force, determined to get back into the aircraft she dearly loves.
But when she returns, the pilot (who is unnamed in Brant’s text) is told she won’t be flying the skies above the deserts of the Middle East as was previously the case. Instead, she will now be a drone operator (derogatorily referred to as the “chair force”). It means she will work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, staring at a grey screen and operating a drone in a windowless trailer outside of Las Vegas. But it also means she can return home to Sam and Eric at the end of each shift.
Unfortunately, what transpires in her role as ‘the eye in the sky’ in the trailer starts to find its way into life beyond her shifts; it begins to take a terrible toll on the pilot, ultimately causing her to unravel. The relationship between the pilot and her targets was not an issue when she was flying in the ‘blue’, but in the trailer, it is deeply enhanced.
Grounded is a lyrical, gripping and fast-paced 80-minute monologue that highlights the rapid pace of technological change, hurtling us along at high speed and devastating human life in every direction. There are questions about gender politics, military response to the mental health of those who serve, the impact of modern warfare on human beings, and also the ethics of drone warfare itself. It all makes for a timely and pertinent piece of theatre.
Directed by Dom Mercer (Artistic Associate at Belvoir), Grounded is the potent play you would expect and it soars on the back of Havea’s outstanding performance. From the second she enters the stage, she owns the role of the fearless, thrill-seeking pilot who matches her male colleagues flight for flight, drink for drink. Havea’s delivery of the pilot’s words feels organic. She engages us immediately, taking us along on a descent into an existence over which she no longer has control. We are with her every minute.
Jonathan Hindmarsh’s sparse but inventive set relies primarily on the way in which it reflects light on and around the stage (Alexander Berlage’s lighting design is therefore also crucial aspect of the set). Projecting different shades onto the giant wall that covers the length of the stage as well as the floor, we are effectively taken from deep blue skies to the desert outside of Las Vegas and into the confines of a trailer linking the pilot to her warzone targets through a grey screen. The work of Hindmarsh and Berlage here has a remarkable impact, and it pairs beautifully with Mary Rapp’s thoughtfully assembled soundscape.
Grounded is sharp, compelling and challenging theatre that cautions us to face, and maybe hit the brakes, on technological advances in order not to be taken backwards.