Opening Salvo: scrutiny, surveillance and shifting perspectives in George Brant’s Grounded

The Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security is running two events as part of the British Science Festival in September. The first of these takes place at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre on Saturday 6th September, and coincides with the regional tour of George Brant’s Grounded, an electrifying new play about a female drone pilot.

I saw the play during its initial run at The Gate Theatre in London and, like many others, was gripped by its skilful blend of story, performance and theatricality to depict a well-researched fiction of an uneasy and morally compromised contemporary reality. The beginning of the play in particular sets the scene for the challenges posed to the audience.

The opening of a play can offer a visual forecast, or central metaphor, that encapsulates the overall narrative theme. Like the pre-credits sequence of a film, the first scene can be a play within a play; a microcosm of the plot, designed to reflect, foreshadow, or even contradict, the events to come. There’s a searing paradox in Apocalypse Now opening with The Doors’ The End; an early indication of the distorted reality that is about to be presented.

In George Brant’s Grounded, a female fighter pilot, following an extended period of maternity leave, is re-assigned as a drone pilot and posted to a base on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Torn between the loss of active combat duty, and the chance to see her daughter grow up, she reluctantly takes up her new role. Instead of the adrenaline kick of flying the F16s, she drives to work to sit in front of a screen in an air-conditioned trailer, fighting the war in 12-hour shifts. She is, as she contemptuously notes, a fully-fledged member of the “Chair Force”[1]. The work is boring, monotonous and repetitive: an office drone. The role is functional and unquestioning, controlling the state-of-the-art Reaper (the “eye in the sky”[2]) to perform the triple role of monitoring activity in the field in Afghanistan, protecting US ground troops, and conducting targeted “personality strikes”[3]. This new power of observation is illustrated very effectively at the beginning of the play, transforming the perspectives of both audience and character.

The pilot – unnamed, anonymous – is our protagonist, a term that playwright and director Noel Greig identifies as:

from the Greek protagonists, which is made up of protos, meaning ‘first’ and agonistes, meaning ‘combatant’. So our protagonist is our ‘first combatant’ the one whose journey leads the action.

Actors…sometimes use the vocabulary of conflict in relation to an audience…the audience is often characterised as the enemy, some sort of beast to be subdued and controlled.[4]

The Gate Theatre’s 2013/14 production of Grounded adopts this concept with enthusiasm, drawing the battle lines between actor and audience from the outset. In a story where conflict and surveillance are the primary focus, the production lays the thematic foundations before the play even starts. The pilot watches the audience enter the auditorium, locking eye contact with individuals as they sit down. It is a look of studied superiority, designed to engage, to challenge, and to conquer. The effect is as unnerving as it is unexpected. Audiences are not usually accustomed to having their presence acknowledged by the characters on stage, especially in such a confrontational manner. Instantly, this creates conflict, both on a personal level between character and audience, but also between the expectation about what the start of a play should entail, and the reality currently staring at them in the face.

A staring contest is war at its most basic and primal. It’s a game of one-upmanship, establishing authority and dominance. The audience are, essentially, being told their place. This has a transfixing effect. Some accept the unspoken challenge and join the contest, only to be stared down by the professional with the superior preparation and firepower. A satisfied smile accompanies the pilot’s victory as she turns her eye to another victim. Here, it is established, is a character who likes to win. Once the audience has been cowed and are sitting quietly in their seats, the house lights go down and the play begins. The watcher becomes the watched, shifting the balance of power, but retaining a residual unease that the natural order of things can be so readily subverted.

This adversarial opening deftly introduces the twin issues of conflict and surveillance that permeate the play. It gives the audience a fleeting insight into the sense of helplessness that such scrutiny provokes in its subjects. It also has an additional effect, as Catherine Love argues, of making the audience complicit in the prevailing culture of surveillance[5]. It’s interesting to read Dan Hutton’s interview with Lucy Ellinson earlier this year, in which the actor reveals that the audience is “completely invisible” to her “whilst inside Oliver Townsend’s cube design”[6]. This knowledge adds an extra layer of complexity to the scene and emphasises the character’s ultimate powerlessness in the face of overwhelming forces. She may have won the battle, but her fundamental lack of vision and failure to see the bigger picture means that she is well on the way to losing the war.

Grounded is taking place at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre as part of the British Science Festival on Saturday 6th September at 7pm. The ICCS is hosting a post-show discussion chaired by Professor Nicholas J Wheeler, with speakers Lucy Ellinson, Dr Liz Tomlin and Dr Talat Farooq.

Catherine Edwards holds an MPhil (B) in Playwriting from the University of Birmingham. She is currently Institute Manager of the ICCS.

Image: Lucy Ellinson in GROUNDED at Studio Theatre Washington (Photo -® Igor Dmitry)

[1] Brant, G. 2013. Grounded. London: Oberon. p.30

[2] Brant, G. 2013, Grounded. p.40

[3] Brant, G. 2013. p.30

[4] Greig, N. 2005, Playwriting: A Practical Guide. London: Routledge. p.86

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