America the grey

America the grey

27 March 2018

Florence Bell on the perfection of Grounded

Grounded is written in a beautiful, rhythmic but this-is-how-people-really-talk way, like the meaning is occurring to the speaker just as they say it: “Yeah, I talk like a Mom now, a bullshit Mom.” It’s a style of acting Steph Sarratt (The Pilot) does so well. The monologue is essentially an 1hr 15mins of intense, furious, emotional character work that never blurs into caricature or gimmick and never veers too far into dystopia. Sarratt’s Pilot always wants more, needs more. She’s proud (“a million dollars to train me”) but in a charming way, somehow without being arrogant.

This production highlights a lot of what’s great about Grounded. But it also plays it far too safe to celebrate the play’s own boldness and darkness. Every time jump, the lights flash down and up again, and sometimes annoying 10-second long clips from songs play, and it feels like chickening out, like the safe option, like the –director not having any better ideas– option.

The audience chuckles softly at The Pilot’s black and white, us versus them stance on the work she does: “Who drives a jeep in the desert? The guilty. The guilty.”

She’s almost childish in her initial views of good/bad, right/wrong. But then that’s what war is: ally/enemy. Grounded doesn’t really celebrate The Pilot’s patriotism, but never condemns it either. The Pilot herself thrives on war but the play thrives on psychology, on the element of war that is actual people dying.

These conflicts are placed there for the audience to judge; I like to imagine the audience around me is probably mostly pacifist. Maybe they thrive on the cultural perception I think this production feeds into the play, the kind of idea most middle-class middle-aged British Guardian readers who probably laugh a lot at Ian Hislop on the telly have of Americans: that they’re people who love their guns, their children, their flag, their burgers, their factories, their dogs, their weird petrol stations in the middle of nowhere like something out of [insert any classic American film/show here], people who love their land so much they just want to frack it really hard, really really hard, who love their country so much that they’re happy with global warming fucking over the oceans because they don’t care about the oceans, they only care about The American Land.

There’s a bit of that in Grounded too. I think a lot of it exists in the knowledge that this is really a British person, and we are all British people who slowly translate the references to American things in our heads (J.C. Penney = a clothing shop). The play is gently critical of American patriotism without the pretence of being a big National drama, exploring it without feeling the need to directly address it (circa Rufus Norris at the National Brexit Theatre). Every affection Sarratt’s Pilot expresses in this play feels laced in that vague cultural idea we have of the rural flag-loving ‘mericans: “My little girl. My angel.”

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Photo credit: Giulia Delprato