Hickham Air Force Base in Hawaii has the best beach ever. A couple of decades ago I spent hours on Honeymoon Beach perfecting my tan while watching planes take off and hearing some break the sound barrier. The pilots who visited were all male – and shockingly young. Presumably the beach is so called because of the numerous weddings performed there. Grounded took me back to my musings –the juxtaposition of paradise and industrial/military, why are pilots so young, why war?
George Brant’s play is a tightly written monologue. Libby Munro brilliantly enacts the downward spiral of a female fighter pilot. The narrative is complex – the plot is relatively simple. The unnamed protagonist finds herself grounded because she’s pregnant. Though she’s unhappy at first, she becomes reconciled to family life. However, as her child grows, she becomes bored and reports back for duty. But technology has moved on. Gone is the (sexual) excitement of flying, alone, surrounded by blue. Nowadays fighter pilots sit in darkened spaces manipulating $11 million drones. At first she is frustrated and disgusted, but after a couple of killings she finds some kind of redemption in a video high. Her old self is back—for a short while. Predictably, the grey putty world of the screen blends with real life. So while the plot isn’t demanding, the timbre is.
Munro takes the audience through her psychological changes. The set is minimalist foregrounding one prop: an emblematic flight suit. It is donned and discarded mirroring the narrative’s rhythms. Munro’s hands are mesmerising – they spread in despair, cramp over controls and generally shape her story. (I wanted to clap after one particular scene, a confrontation with her commanding officer, but theatre audiences frown at that sort of behaviour – so Libby, I’m clapping for you here). Ninety minutes is a heavy burden for an actor, and one that would have been lightened with more imaginative staging—even the backdrop was incredibly dull. Still it’s all eyes on Munro and her consummate performance.
Generally the play’s focus is new versus old warfare – the distancing of killer from killed. This theme is filtered though issues of drone technology and surveillance, video gaming and addiction, mother or career woman, and (strangely enough) offshore employment and marketing. While the ending (no spoiler alerts) adds a human dimension to war, the show explicitly fails to engage with bigger issues such as war in general. But then it is an American play. Perhaps we really have to rely on South Park for more divisive social commentary – cf “Grounded Vindaloop”.
Diane Cilento Studio,
29 July – 22 August
Words by Toni Johnson-Woods