The moment I walked into the studio theatre space at The Arnolfini, I knew we were in for something special with ‘Grounded’ written by George Brant and performed by Lucy Ellinson, a show presented by The Bristol Old Vic. A woman stands before us already on the stage as we file in and find our seats. She resides within a cage like structure with a mesh front and eerily lit by green lights. I feel strangely voyeuristic at first, like I shouldn’t be looking at her. After a few minutes, I am unable to take my eyes off her, and the show has not even begun. Ellison begins her monologue with a sudden ‘pow’ of a start, and I remain unable to tear my eyes away from her for the rest of the performance. Dressed in the uniform of a pilot, she immediately draws you in with her ‘tough guy’ persona. She is cocky, confident, brash and so very… well, male in her demeanour. Our heroine is a fighter pilot, in love with her career which is so clearly much more than just a job to her and also in love with ‘the blue’, and the feeling she has when she is in the sky, so powerful and in charge. She boasts of drinking sessions with her ‘boys’, of how men are afraid to approach her in bars. She is beautiful, yes, but also a little terrifying. It would take a man with real balls to approach her. But one does, and she likes him. They fuck, her description of it so refreshing. It’s about the pleasure of it, it’s not romance. He wants to do it while she wears her uniform. She describes it in such a typically… well, ‘male’ way. I liked that too, it sometimes feels like women are not allowed to feel like that about sex. But hey, we like to fuck too, right?! The macho swagger shifts a little as we learn of her unplanned pregnancy with this man. But she keeps the baby, she tries to make a life with him. You feel her relief as she goes back to her love, her work, her life. OK, so she is going to be a drone pilot, so she will be one of the ‘chair force’, nowhere near her beloved ‘blue’. But she gets to see her family every night, she kisses her baby and her man goodnight every night. Thats a good life. Its not so bad. Is it? 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week. A certain kind of order, yet a certain kind of madness. Remotely controlling a plane, she is removed by distance from any kill she makes, yet strangely feels much more involved. Her decent into the pit of despair feels horribly predictable, yet depressingly mundane. The explosive finale is impossibly hard to watch, yet compelling, sad and an important reflection on modern warfare and the sheer futility of it all.
I found this show incredibly powerful. The character played by Ellinson pushed and pulled me. I thought could not relate to the bits of her that were so very masculine. Yet, as a working mother who ties herself up in all sorts of knots about how I feel leaving my babies in the care of others, I could relate to her struggles. I have my own versions of her need for blue sky and freedom. I know how it feels to be grounded. The mundane nature of her life outside of work repelled me and made me want to gather my family, quit my job and run for the hills. But I am also aware of my own personal paradoxes. I know if I did not follow my own passions, if I spent every moment with my kids, I would go slightly insane too. The overriding masculinity and brashness of her character made the moments of tender motherhood we glimpsed in our heroine all the more vulnerable and heart wrenching when we witnessed them.
When the performance ended, I, like many of my fellow audience members felt emotionally wrung out and exhausted. There were tears. Plenty. But I urge you to see this. It is a hard ride, challenged me in ways I found uncomfortable, but was utterly mesmerising. Lucy Ellinson gave life to a character who challenged my views on masculinity and femininity, and made me question my own life choices and decisions. She left me stunned and incredibly moved. I’ve looked at dronewars.net as Ellinson suggested we do at the end of the show. I was troubled by it, but you should look too. But, more than anything else, I urge you to see this show. Maybe it is an exaggeration to say I feel changed through watching it. Maybe. But maybe you might feel the same way too.
Grounded is at Arnolfini until Saturday 31st January
Thanks to The Gate Theatre for the image