This is my second encounter with George Brant’s play and it makes no less an impression than it did first time around when Melbourne’s Red Stitch brought its acclaimed production to the Seymour Centre in 2015.
Presented by The National Theatre of Parramatta, this production stars Emily Havea as Brant’s narrator, a USAF fighter pilot whose love affair with “the blue” and active front line service in the Gulf War is interrupted by an unplanned pregnancy.
After the birth of her child, she reapplies for her old job, flying her beloved F16, her “Tiger”. But fighter pilots are becoming a thing of the past, she’s told and the future is already here in the form of the pilotless Reaper drone. From now on she’ll be flying in name only, circling the skies of the Middle East from an armchair in a portacabin somewhere in Nevada.
Trained for combat, she struggles fighting this new kind of war, one in which she can kill but not be killed. The old sense of mission accomplished quickly turns to horror when she’s required to invisibly “linger” for hours over target zones, looking at the mayhem she has unleashed and body parts strewn across the sand. Helpless, she observes ambushed American soldiers lying in the dirt, the light from their heat signatures picked up on her infrared cameras slowly fading to grey as they die.
Slowly, the ethical murk she finds herself immersed in 12 hours a day, seven days a week, begins to seep into her life beyond the base. She doesn’t change out of uniform for the trip home anymore. A trip to the local shopping mall with her daughter takes on an ominous cast. “There’s always a camera, right?” she says. “J. C. Penney or Afghanistan … Everything is witnessed.”
Thematically meaty and pertinent, Grounded questions the limits of military power, the shifting boundaries separating the real and the virtual, and society’s acceptance of near constant surveillance. It’s also a real test for an actor, one that requires immediate credibility and authority to be established.
Havea has the goods, bringing her strong stage presence and an aura of confidence and capacity to the role. She pitches her voice low and throttles back on emotion at first, creating a convincing – if emotionally opaque – portrait of a female Top Gun. Later, as her sangfroid is challenged – by sexual passion; by the birth of her daughter; by the fragmenting of her mind – she brings her range into play very effectively.
Directed by Dom Mercer, Grounded is set on a wide stage against a curving backdrop on which lights (orchestrated by Alexander Berlage) and Havea’s shadows play. Apart from flickering strips in the floor, the visual and sonic score (composed by Mary Rapp) is low-key, which is no bad thing given that Brant’s text is descriptively rich and needs little reinforcement.