Monologue theatre may have been much overused in the last twenty odd years, but Grounded proves that in the right hands it is still incredibly compelling.
Monologue often reports to a wry element of reflective confession. Instead, here the narrator lives through each moment of a complex train of events as they are recounted. She may very well be wrong about a lot of what she says, but the desperation with which she battles is entirely and unrelievedly convincing.
The script feels profoundly imaginative. In fact, it was researched with both admirable rigour as to detail and sensitivity to distress. The production has precisely complementary qualities. The moment we walk in to find a married woman in active service uniform apparently stood in a display case. It’s a clear sign that any of our expectations could be challenged. The roof of the case is studded with what look at first like far too many birdie lights – in fact they bear an uncanny resemblance to CCTV cameras trained on her, and that is no accident. Her reaction to the curiosity (or otherwise) of the people filing into the space is naked, variable, sometimes ambiguous, but feels unsettlingly honest. There is no actorly pretence here.
And then we get the story, of the unravelling of a woman’s career and life, disrupted at every turn by events that most of us would regard as a source of joy or relief. Maybe that’s because the premise on which she has built her desire to serve is a hollow delusion; maybe it’s because even though she is in the prime of life, the world is already passing her by – no sooner is she a trailblazing combat pilot than that role is obsolete – and so it goes on.
Christopher Haydon’s direction in his farewell as the Gate’s Artistic Director is precise and impassioned. Lucy Ellinson is ideal as The Pilot, sparing her character nothing, having the courage to make her just plain wrong and yet passionately sincere. She has the extraordinary capacity, in tiny, subtle details, to age ten years in an hour, and to disintegrate mentally without once being seen to ‘Act Sick’. No-one forgets, however, that this is not just a play about PTSD in surprising forms. It’s about the big stuff –about our perilous relationship with technology generally, about how human beings derive a sense of personal worth, and how tenuous our grip on sanity and objectivity can be, even when things seem to be going well.
This production has been on a four year anabasis and we are very lucky that it returns to its spiritual home for a further flourish, however apocalyptic its final idea.