Deafinitely Theatre’s latest production is a bilingual version of George Brant’s acclaimed play Grounded which charts the intimately personal journey of a female fighter pilot who loses her wings. Joe Turnbull went along to London’s Park Theatre to see if it reaches the heights.
Deafinitely have garnered a reputation for producing theatre that incorporates signing into its very fabric, making their productions equally appealing to Deaf and non-deaf audiences, rather than relying on a traditional ‘access’ approach which typically just translates English to BSL or vice versa.
As my first experience of Deafinitely’s work, Grounded more than lives up to this billing. I have little knowledge of BSL, but the kinetically-poetic signing augments the acting and gives the words new and often more profound expressions.
Grounded tells the story of a nameless US fighter pilot who, after becoming unexpectedly pregnant, is reassigned to piloting unmanned drones, operating out of the Nevada desert. The programme lists the signing Nadia Nadarajah as ‘The Pilot’ whilst the speaking Charmaine Wombwell is credited as ‘Voice of the Pilot’.
This is problematic, as Wombwell is not a disembodied voice simply giving words to Nadarajah’s actions; the former’s physical movements are less pronounced and gestural than the latter’s, but they are still a significant element of her performance. The Pilot is the only acted character in this production. What we get is two different – though often complimentary – portrayals of her.
In a play about a female fighter pilot its unsurprising that gender looms large over the entire piece. On first reading, Grounded presents a refreshing angle on traditional gender roles, even going deliberately out of its way to subvert them. The Pilot is emotionally distant, masculine and enjoys drinking beers with “her boys,” not to mention trotting out the words “bullshit” and “fuck” (in relation to intercourse) at any available opportunity.
But the play seems to say that the biological fact of pregnancy still shackles even the most atypically-feminine women, should they decide to go ahead with it. Interestingly, Wombwell and Nadarajah play the Pilot differently in relation to gender. The former is hyper-masculine, stone-faced almost throughout, whereas the latter lets little feminine flourishes come through in the way she uses her body and is also prone to smiling and playing a happy side to the character. This is a pleasing contrast, having two sides to a single personality played out before your eyes, though it can be a little bewildering at times.
There’s plenty of turbulence along the way. The Pilot is initially devastated at being ‘grounded’ by her pregnancy; she suffers an identity crisis. The novelty that piloting the drones affords – of being at war whilst being able to come home to her young family – provides some relief. But it soon wears off. No longer able to safely compartmentalise her wartime persona and her domestic one, the lines almost inevitably begin to blur. As she remarks at one point: “If Odysseus had had to come home every night, it would have been a very different story”.
As the greyness of the computer screen which operates her drone replaces the joyous blue of the sky, so it begins to creep into her life. She becomes paranoid that she is being watched at all times, just as she looks down anonymously from her drone on what she calls ‘the guilty’.
Here the play cleverly conflates the contemporary concerns of the surveillance state and the moral uncertainty that surrounds the use of armed unmanned drones to deliver death sentences from on high. The powers that be are both omniscient and imbued with the power to take life at will, and indeed the Pilot sees herself as “a god”.
It’s telling that the Pilot doesn’t become aware of the problematic nature of her actions until she begins to lose her grip on reality – as her virtual wartime world collides with her physical domestic one. In this sense she is grounded in more ways than one. The increasing alterity of her perspective – though considered ‘crazy’ – actually brings her down to earth, as the reality of the blood on her hands hits home. She is also stripped from the pedestal her husband formerly placed her on. She is no longer a superhero, but an ordinary mother with feelings.
In this sense the play comes full-circle. Normal gender roles are assumed. The portrayal of the everyday monotony of the Pilot’s routine itself becomes a little boring. There was also a few dropped lines and minor mistakes from Wombwell. In summary, Grounded sees Deafinitely once again spread their wings, but it’s not without the odd bogy on its six.