Saturday, September 17, 2016
Theatre: Grounded (★★★★½)
Written by George Brant
Directed by Emily McLean
Sound designer and composer Brett Smith
Lighting designer Karen Cook
Performed by Alison van Reeken
Blue Room Theatre
Until October 1
“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Robert Oppenheimer (from the Bagavad Gita)
When Oppenheimer, in the high New Mexico desert, pondered the destructive power of his atomic bomb, it was its enormity and existential threat that gave him pause.
No such qualms stay the hand of the wielders of military drones, those precise, invisible predators that increasingly are the weapon of choice of the world’s militaries.
It’s easy to see why. Bloodless (to their possessors) and politically expedient, they turn warfare into images on screens, and death into the ultimate gamer abstraction.
But there are people operating the drones, and, in George Brant’s hard, cold Grounded, we meet one. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that one confronts us. The Pilot (she has no name) was an F-16 fighter jock. Her world was The Blue, W.B. Yeats’s “lonely impulse of delight”.
When it is taken from her and she’s assigned to the “Chair Force”, sitting in a hut at an air force base in another high desert an hour out of Las Vegas, staring at screen images from 1.2 seconds ago on the other side of the world, her blue world turns to grey.
As she monitors her screen, and rains death on figures scuttling around in the desert, her moral compass and her sense of self become harder and harder to grasp.
Until another reality forces her to reach back for them.
Alison van Reeken is the very best of our actors, and she’s extraordinary here. Hair tied back tight, face taut and unmade, sinewy in her pilot’s jumpsuit, her performance (85 minutes, delivered at the gallop) is uncompromising, technically flawless and emotionally convincing.
Her pilot is frightening and frightened, normal and abnormal in equal measure.
The director, Emily McLean, doesn’t have all the technical bells and whistles at the Blue Room that the celebrated Julie Taymor had to play with in the Broadway production of Grounded, so she and her lighting designer Karen Cook focus us entirely on van Reeken, and it’s to powerful, chilling effect.
The only distractions from Grounded’s tension are the songs on The Pilot’s car stereo.
Maybe one day she will crank up her AC/DC, her Guns ‘N’ Roses and Springsteen real loud, and drive. Away, up past Las Vegas, up past Los Alamos, and off into The Blue.
Tickets to Grounded will be hard to get. Don’t miss it.
An edited version of this review appeared in The West Australian 16.9.16.