To say Grounded took last year’s Edinburgh Fringe by storm may be a bit of an understatement. For about a week, George Brant’s play about an American pilot who finds herself sat behind a desk manning a drone was the only show anyone spoke of, with five star reviews across the board and a buzz which still hasn’t quite died down. At the heart of it all was Lucy Ellinson who, trapped within a gauze box throughout the entirety of Christopher Haydon’s exquisite production, recounted to us the Pilot’s hilarious and heartbreaking story. Now, before a visit to Washington DC and an upcoming tour, Grounded is back at Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre, the place of its inception.
Did any of the team expect the response to the show? “No, no, not at all,” Ellinson tells me a few hours before press night. “I knew it’d be interesting to people because of the insight it gives you into a very secretive form of warfare, and a very secretive transformation of our armed forces. But I didn’t imagine for a second that it’d be received as well as it was.”
Arguably, the reason for the depth of connection we feel to this Pilot is that her life feels painfully similar to our own; though she spends every day commanding a killing machine thousands of miles away, the routine of work is extraordinarily recogniseable. Ellinson agrees that, after the Pilot drew herself as a “self-drawn heroic figure” in the mould of those on MOD adverts, “it’s that switch which is an enormous thing”. This new life is, literally and metaphorically, “miles away from the fighter pilot fantasy that we have in our imagination. It’s a total reconfiguration of her understanding of her job as a professional pilot.”
The blending of the personal with the political in Grounded is what makes this such a special piece, focusing as it does on the way in which drone warfare changes the lives of those on both sides. “What’s particularly smart about this play is that you get a sense of the experience of people living under drones through the eyes of a person who is operating them,” Ellinson says, before quoting from Medea Benjamin’s Drone Warfare, which suggests that those piloting unmanned aerial vehicles experience a “God-like” intimacy with those underneath the “Gorgon stare” of the cameras. “The daughter and parent relationship that we’re presenting is no different than the people living under drones – that for me is really crucial. You can talk about perpetrators and victims, but ultimately they’re all people and the minute we start treating those who live under drones differently from us it becomes a problem. We shouldn’t do that. We have to face the fact that drones – whether you’re living under drones or operating them – are a danger to us all.”
Ellinson admits, however, that like the Pilot herself, performing in Grounded is “a very high-adrenaline experience”, especially after Haydon’s insistence during the final week of rehearsals last year that the piece should lose 20 minutes of its running time. After weeks of research and discussion, this final week became “a kind of rigorous training in itself”. Like the Pilot, who spends her days sat in front of moving pictures, Ellinson works through various images in her head during performance in order to find the arc of the narrative of a script which reads like poetry: “we surrounded all the four walls of the rehearsal room in paper and laid the script out in one long line to cover in pictures and visuals, because that’s kind of how my brain works.”
Though not crucial to an enjoyment of the piece, the knowledge that the audience is completely invisible to Ellinson whilst inside Oliver Townsend’s cube design certainly adds an extra layer to the ideas of surveillance Brant explores in the play. And though she insists that the audience’s presence is “felt”, this forms a strange contrast to the work Ellinson has created with the likes of Chris Goode, Third Angel and Unlimited Theatre, where there is “a very strong sense of a desire to acknowledge and work with an audience in that space. We don’t necessarily want to come up with the answers in a piece, but allow people to sit with that complexity together as a group of people; those things are important too.”
Nowhere is this idea more obvious than in #TORYCORE, Ellinson’s theatre-gig collaboration with Chris Thorpe and Steve Lawson, which sees Conservative economic policy underscored to the sound of “pure evil”. It’s an angry, visceral piece, and shifts constantly as the Tories – and the political class at large – edge ever-closer to being parodies of themselves. Though playing at Mayfest later this month, dates are few and far between as, Ellinson jokingly despairs, she’s “working with the two busiest people of all time. I really want us to do more, because it does something that I’m still trying to figure out”. This sentiment mirrors my own because, as anyone who has seen #TORYCORE will tell you, it gets deep inside you and twists something there in a raw, unexpected way. Ellinson, however, is crystal clear in her intentions: “I want to continue talking about welfare and I want to continue to keep it formally very simple, but other than that, I’m up for anything happening with it.”
This desire to keep a debate raging and engage with important ideas is never difficult to find in Ellinson’s work, and Grounded is no exception. Taking it to the American capital will, no doubt, raise even more possibilities for discussion. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed that our visit to the States will be useful for those people who are involved in the debate and the campaign over there, because a British perspective can freshen that up a bit. It’s got a lot of work to do. I just have to look after myself and try and keep it alive for people.”
Grounded is at the Gate until 30 May. For more information and tickets, visit the Gate’s website.
The Drone Campaign Network is holding a day gathering for those interested in campaigning on the growing use of drones. The event will take place at Friends Meeting House, Euston on Saturday 14 June.