The temptation when writing a play about America’s drone wars would be to make it big – a critique of US military strategy and Washington’s foreign policy. Or to make it a procedural, imagining the debate that goes on behind closed doors as targets are selected, lawyers consulted and orders dispatched.
The success of Grounded, written by George Brant, is to make it small and to make it personal. A new production is previewing at The Public Theatre in New York, following a successful debut at Edinburgh and an acclaimed run in London. And you should try to snap up tickets while you still can.
There will be no shortage of press coverage. This time around it stars Anne Hathaway. It’s something of an ambitious choice, casting a Hollywood actress who has seldom appeared on stage, for a 75-minute single hander. The gamble pays off. With distinction. Her small frame holds the small theatre rapt as she energetically describes the story of Pilot, who is transferred from an F-16 to a Predator drone when she becomes a mother.
At the heart of the story is the notion of a warrior. What does it mean for a man or woman to go to war. For Pilot it is all for the love of the “blue”, the freedom she feels in the air, and the exhilaration she feels unloading her Sidewinder missiles. In her hands is the power to turn buildings back to desert, back to sand.
Or at least I think I do. I’m long gone by the time the boom happens.
And this is the crux of the tale. Once transferred to drones, her relationship with the target changes. She is invincible, the risk to her is eliminated. It becomes a mantra running through the lyrical script: “The threat of death has been removed.”
But now she can see the targets. Where before they were points on a radar, Xs on maps, surveillance cameras (another of the repeated motifs) mean she can see her handiwork up close. What was once the thrill of smiting the enemy – “I killed me some military age males” – begins to weigh more heavily.
The staging is extraordinary. The action is conducted in a sandpit – neatly tying together the Nevada desert where Pilot is based, and the scrub where her targets live and die. (OK, Afghan hands know that’s a stretch. There’s not much desert in Afghanistan but I went with it.)
A complex lighting array beams scenery on to the sand and a mirror at the rear of the stage. It is at its most powerful when it shows Pilot flying her drone, giving a complete sense of human and machine as one.
The sand tells its own story. It starts the evening raked neatly into ridges, before being flattened and kicked into chaos as Pilot’s mental state deteriorates. When she has a chance to decompress it is smoothed back into shape.
In telling the story of Pilot – so deftly performed by Hathaway – Grounded avoids the temptation to make grandiose statements about right and wrong. Instead (and there’s a lesson here for those of us who have spent years reporting and thinking about these things) it picks out the most important question about drones. What are they doing to us?