On solid ground
29 March 2018
Grounded takes flight, and Naomi Obeng thinks they land it too.
A perfectly pitched performance in a polished and precise production. I’m left wanting to see it again, in all its intensity and intimate storytelling. This is a masterful solo show in which the minimal set allows Steph Sarratt to demonstrate the exact range and depth required of the part.
She stands as The Pilot, feet rooted, grounded firmly on the spot where she stays for her opening monologue fixing us with her gaze, reeling us into her story. George Brant’s script is peppered with detailed imagery and effectively incants the world around the stark spotlight we’re presented with in the first minutes. The US pilot lives off being in the sky, she lives for the blue – but then she has a daughter and everything changes. It doesn’t feel solitary despite the sparseness of the set. It hasn’t got time to be. The world is chaotic, as time skips forwards and repetition is established, then broken. I love that there is no time to quite wonder whether the pilot is OK, she’s too confident and in control of her story for you to dare to ask. But then the blue is gone. She has to control a drone from the ground now, watching a screen where there’s only grey. It all starts to unravel, and she isn’t OK, is she? Not now and maybe not all along.
The high-energy journey is almost melodic. The dynamic lighting keeps it moving, building the energy required for such a dense piece of theatre to leap off the stage and come to life in our minds. Violence builds slowly and insipidly. The first kill from the "chair force" control station triggers a rush of adrenaline. She’s vibrating and we’re almost swept up in it. It’s only at this point that the horror of the whole operation hits home. The normalisation and inevitable distance we have from war and soldiers breaks a little, as we’re forced to picture human debris in the aftermath of what is, for the drone operation: a success. We think we know what it means to be an Air Force pilot, but we remember that the pilot’s mission is to kill, repeatedly.
The text lost me a little towards the end. The final climax felt forced from a narrative point of view as the pilot begins to question herself and changes the course of her mission drastically. She struggles to process reality. The nosedive into the unknown abyss that her story takes feels a little strong for what has come before, but then, this isn’t about how a rational mind works. It’s about a mind being pushed towards the edge and a system of tactical warfare that allows it to happen.
Sarratt’s performance is completely absorbing and the intensity to which it builds blows you away. The humour falls naturally and effectively; that beautiful type of that humour feels like it emerges as it does in life, not with a setup, but without warning. The whole production feels natural, and that’s maybe its greatest achievement. It lets you gravitate towards the questions it's asking about warfare, violence and humanity quietly, before you notice you’ve arrived at them at all.
And that Pepsi bottle as the only prop – I’m not exactly sure it is a prop, but it works so well. That pop of colour next to the khaki uniform flight suit and the black control chair. It sings of America. It sits there, like a little blue, red and white question mark.
The play is a flight, a speedy takeoff, and a cruise that turns into a nosedive. The imagery keeps coming back to me and asking me to consider it more closely. Powerful and pertinent.
Photo credit: Aenne Pallasca