5 stars *****
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
3 stars ***
Summerhall (Venue 26)
4 stars ****
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
IN A DARKENED room somewhere in the Nevada desert, a woman sits staring at a screen, and at the grey images that move across it. She is a pilot, a woman who joined the US air force because she loved the wide blue sky, and wanted to fly. Now, though, she is part of what they call the “chairforce”, the skilled servicemen and women who, these days, pilot not real planes but remote-controlled drones, flying over Afghanistan’s mountain landscape, peering down through sludgy grey night cameras, hunting out “the guilty”, the terrorist cells and headquarters that are sometimes family homes.
This is the new face of the “war on terror” exposed in Grounded, a searing one-hour monologue by the American writer George Brant presented at the Traverse by the Gate Theatre of London; and it’s difficult to imagine a more eloquent piece of writing about how this bizarre form of 21st century warfare gradually drives the pilot mad – all the more so because she first gave up “real” flying to give birth to her adored daughter Sam, who, she prays, will not grow up to be “a hair-tosser, a cheerleader, a needy sack of shit.” Working at what is essentially a desk job, driving home every night to Sam and her beloved husband, she can no longer compartmentalise her life as she could on real air-bases, thousands of miles away; and at the moment when she begins to see her daughter’s face among the sludgy images of children on the screen, the game is over.
What makes Brant’s play exceptional is its driving, white-hot sense of identification with a woman who is not, on the face of it, a sympathetic character. The pilot loves her warrior role, holds most other women in contempt, and – almost to the end – accepts official definitions of “the guilty” without question. Yet in Lucy Ellinson’s magnificent, unflinchingly focussed performance – superbly directed by Christopher Haydon on a cage-like set by Oliver Townsend, with fine soundscape by Tom Gibbons – the sheer pressure of reality, embodied in the memory of the joyful pregnancy that had her bursting out of her flying suit, eventually begins to overwhelm the psychological barriers and narratives she has constructed around her job. Grounded is a heartbreaking, beautiful, necessary and perfectly-structured solo drama about how warfare is changing, how women are changing, and how the human mind is changing, as our reality becomes ever more “virtual”; and here, it finds that rarest of things – a production that does it full justice, and then adds its own touch of genius, to an essential story for our times.
The late Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya – focus of the latest show from the Badac company, specialists in “extreme political theatre” – is in some ways a much more conventional dramatic heroine. Politkovskaya was a notably courageous journalist, continuing to report on shocking abuses of power by the Russian security forces in their own self-styled “war on terror” despite a mounting barrage of threats, which culminated in her murder outside her Moscow flat, in 2006.
Badac’s extreme theatre aesthetic has two related problems. The first is their conviction that to make audiences feel the pain of the situations they describe, they have to subject them to a tiny dose of the same fear and disempowerment; this time, at Summerhall, it involves an audience of thirty people – including, at the performance I saw, at least two pregnant women – being slammed without warning into a lift, and propelled down into a narrow, sweat-dripping basement corridor stinking of paint fumes where they stand for 65 minutes watching an unrelenting display of ear-splitting aggression directed against Politkovskaya by those who would silence her.
And the second lies in the aggression itself, which takes such a relentless, ferocious, unceasing form that the mind simply begins to cancel it out; for the last 15 minutes of this show, Marnie Baxter’s desperate but defiant Politskovskaya is reduced to a whimpering wreck by a gang of three big men smashing, taunting, insulting and sexually abusing her with every obscenity in the book. It’s a spectacle some might enjoy for all the wrong reasons; and I was struck by the contrast with Yael Farber’s Nirbhaya at the Assembly Hall, which shows a horrific and very explcicit act of rape, but sets it in a context of wasted beauty and potential that is far more likely to move us to hope and action, rather than to helpless and deafened despair.
At the Traverse, by contrast, Omphile Molusi’s new play Cadre takes us back to the mother of all “wars on terror”, the fifty-year battle of the apartheid regime in South Africa to protect its power against those it defined as “terrorists”; many of the techniques it developed are stlll in use today, from the Middle East to Chechnya. Molusi’s play, though, takes the sweet and surprising form of a love story – a township Romeo And Juliet, with a great pulse of joy at its heart – as its hero Gregory moves through the years between 1965 and 2013, finding his love Sasa, then losing her again, and finally learning to live a long life without her, after her death at the hands of the police.
All the violence and political struggle of recent South African history is there, in Molusi’s play; the effect is sometimes sketchy, and the narrative pace sometimes flags, as a cast of only three actors – led by Molusi himself – lead us through this complex story, on a simple, beautifully-lit set of hanging blankets and eloquent shadows. At its core, though, this little 75-minute epic makes the vital point that even freedom is an empty word, where there is no love; and it makes it with music, heart and passion, in a way that lifts the spirits for the neverending struggle against unaccountable power, and the many “wars” it declares, in order to justify its own acts of violence, terror and hate.
Until 25, 25,25
pp. 286, 255, 266.