27 March 2018
Louisa Doyle loves Grounded's protagonist, but is left wondering who is flying the plane
Hats off to Steph Sarratt. She embodies the female fighter pilot dropped from air duty, confined to drive drones from the safety of a trailer. Her strength is tangible; confidence that does not ask for your affirmation. She's not a brash and explosive patriot, but instead, a model of measure. I’d have thought that was a hard call to make for a character that has to singlehandedly engage an audience for an hour and a half, but she does it with grace. Her vocal control is steady and assured, the tone of a woman who doesn’t feel the threat of a heavily masculine military environment. Or if she does feel it, she barely flinches. The play is almost an hour and a half and she stands her ground with unfaltering composure.
She really does stands her ground – she hardly moves, and no support is given to her in terms of production. No sound design, imaginative lighting or any attempt at choreographing slick transitions to help stir her out of the thick clots of text. She has the script, a brilliant one, but that is it. And if this austerity was intended to reinforce the allusions to her grey-shaded world, it was better in concept than execution.
Which makes me question how much the director really did. Undoubtedly, directing requires more than just the macro, and Sarratt couldn’t have developed the character on her own. But in terms of the gradation of her performance, it didn't feel like they had plotted any emotional journey for the character. One minute, we’re watching The Pilot's melancholy reflection on her glory days in the sky. Lights out. Next. The Pilot bounds across the stage, un-convincingly chipper that “It’s a new morning”. OK – maybe she could have bounced back that fast, but I think that’s a generous explanation. Even a simple transition would have been useful to let the audience in on how she pulls herself out of dismay, what it takes to keep up a brave face. Otherwise, the scenes trail after each other and leave unnecessary gaps in our understanding of the character.
The narrative of Grounded drives us towards The Pilot’s reckoning. Invincible in the grey trailer, she envisions herself as a God and deems her one-eyed target below as nothing but a helpless prophet. Like any tragic hero, the hubris of the pilot is met with devastating punishment; a momentary imagining of the death of her daughter, Sam, as if she is caught within range of a military bombing. Here, Sarratt crumbles with astonishing vulnerability. Her switch from solider to mother is instant and devastating, resonant of the cries of Euripides’ Andromache. Perfect for this moment – but thinking back, could Sarratt’s passion have been tapped more effectively to play out earlier in the show? Arguments long before the climax had seemed lacklustre, conflicting with the energy of Blunt’s text. Had more of the smaller moments of tragedy been realised, The Lion Theatre Company could have built to their climax more effectively.
This is one example of why the performance felt stunted and inconsistent. The same goes for alternating attention to locations and how they are demarcated on stage.
Sarratt moved like a stick shift from sitting to standing, on the job, off the job as arbitrarily as the lighting changes. For most of the time, she was stuck front on, locking eyes with the auditorium aisle. Blunt provides a lot of prompts for creating an interesting environment; the gum-chewing nineteen-year-old, the team of drone operators, control desks, screens, the trailer itself. With that in mind, the lack of imagined interaction for Sarratt on stage for this show left it wanting.
The Lion Theatre Company's Grounded was a fantastic exposition for Sarratt, who really is a talent. But without the support of stronger choreography and direction, she was a “lone wolf” for the wrong reasons. Like the pilot, I was left fed up in my comfy chair, unsatisfied and craving action.
Photo credit: Giulia Delpreto