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Sydney review: Red Stitch's Grounded

Kate Cole as The Pilot. Image supplied by Red Stitch Theatre


By George Brant

Directed by Kirsten von Bibra

Red Stitch Actors Theatre

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Chippendale

Season: 1 - 16 May

A one-woman-show about the US conflict in Afghanistan does not regularly frequent the Australian stage. In this way, Grounded takes risks and packs a punch with an audience residing in a country that often supports the US superpower.

Directed by Kirsten von Bibra and starring Kate Cole, the play gives insight into the experience of a female pilot for the US Air Force, grounded in the ‘chairforce’ after giving birth, controlling the flight of drones in Afghanistan from a trailer in Las Vegas. She develops PTSD and we are shown firsthand the effects of the syndrome on her life and relationships and are furthermore presented with the issue of drones, fraught by ethical dilemmas.

Cole sustains a mind-blowing level of energy throughout the piece, powering through from start to finish. Kinetic movements accompany the monologue, highlighting her polished rehearsal and long familiarity with the work since her original successful season in Brisbane.

She holds the audience’s focus for the entirety of the work; an incredible feat considering the responsibility resides solely with her for an hour and a half. Cole’s character as the Pilot is an unfamiliar role for much of the audience – a reverse gender role figure.

The Pilot is a ragingly independent fighter pilot, immensely confident, frequently spouting expletive-filled dialogue. Quite a blokey figure, this is a woman more comfortable drinking a beer with the boys after work than returning home each night to her husband and young daughter.

Meanwhile, the Pilot describes her husband as boundlessly supportive, sensitive, and willing to take on a gamut of typically ‘maternal’ roles. A relatively rare occurrence in popular culture, let alone theatre, this presented a fresh concept, yet the use of a female protagonist did not err far from our idea of an archetypal soldier.

Cole exhibited an impressive arsenal of emotional expression, particularly for a soldier who stereotypically would not freely release emotions. She flitted frenetically between mindsets, which I imagine must be a pertinent struggle for ‘chairforce’ soldiers – being forced to revert from a warfare mindset to a family frame of mind during the short drive home from work each day. The lack of decompression for a drone pilot is a factor that can contribute to the onset of PTSD, and it is highly valuable to be addressed in this theatrical work.

The piece saliently communicated the tedium associated with unmanned flight of drones, including 12-hour shifts in a dark trailer to fly the drone, and then 12 hours in a domestic setting. Extreme use of repetition effectively communicated this notion, yet I found that my engagement began to falter as the repetition perhaps was instilled too strongly. This was a challenge inherent in a one-woman script, and in spite of the challenge, Cole’s delivery was still strong.

Costume design for the Pilot was simple, Cole wearing a military flight suit for the duration of the piece. Set design was accordingly sparse; a white proscenium arch with plain white backdrop, and no use of props. At certain points there was a block of colour projected onto the back wall, used symbolically for femininity of her daughter or the freedom of flying through the open skies. Music was utilised occasionally, creating humour and general mood.

The most prominent idea I drew from the piece was the notion of constant surveillance… be that by the state, the enemy or any everyday institution, like a shopping mall.

The symbol of the watchful eye was shown in the drone surveillance and through perceived surveillance of the Pilot, heightened by her symptoms of PTSD. It introduces the discomfort one senses in relation to a drone’s ability to survey and accurately identify targets through continual watching, launching attacks with absolutely no danger to the drone’s pilot, and thus creating an uneven playing field.

Grounded is a theatrical account of modern warfare, carrying with it the complex personal experiences and ethical dilemmas integral to war. At what point does security surveillance impede on autonomy and intolerably violate our lives? How far are we willing to go, and at what cost?

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