Major Barbara star Clare Dunne dominated the Project’s Space Upstairs in a performance of George Brant’s monologue Grounded as part of Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival.
Dunne is an unnamed fighter pilot, one of the USAF’s Top Guns; returning minarets in the Middle East to the state of the sands that surround them. Or at least presuming that she does, she’s always miles past her target by the time her missiles hit home. She’s cocky, one of the boys; an intimidating figure to most civilian men, until one man is attracted by her flight suit star-power. Finding herself pregnant she has to stop flying because her unborn daughter would not survive the G-force of the ejector seat being deployed. Three years later reporting for duty she is horrified to find herself permanently grounded. F-16s aren’t being made anymore, it’s all drones now; and she’s retrained for the US Chair Force. Relocating to Las Vegas she longs for the feeling of soaring lethally thru the blue sky…
Dunne’s accent initially startles; co-ordinates are somewhere around Wyoming by way of Texas; but it fits her swaggering character perfectly – a lover of AC/DC, a hater of hair-tossing girls, high on self-mythology, short on self-analysis. She is some kind of American archetype. Almost as bad as flying a drone and not having her own plane is not being a lone wolf anymore; now she has to fly a drone, not her drone, in shifts with other pilots, a teenager beside her controlling the camera, and a team of analysts in her ear okaying when she can strike – her individual lethal agency is gone. Killing is now pushing a button, represented by Dunne’s click of a pen. But now she’s forced to linger on the scenes of her kills… And soon the grey images on her monitor bleed into her home life.
Director Selina Cartmell stages the action on a long narrow platform with the audience facing each other across it. The only props are chairs which Dunne manically rearranges to create varied settings for the different scenes: a fight with her c/o, family drama, the boredom of reconnaissance, the tension of hovering surveillance, and the guilty thrill of danger-free drone-strikes. Davy Cunningham’s dazzling light design, which at one point loses Dunne in darkness while the audience looms up, is combined with a thunderous and brilliant use of AC/DC and Elvis. This is a topical piece, but the personal angst of adjusting to new modes of war is more dramatically interesting than the predictable crisis of conscience; which her husband urges her to leave at the base like his ‘clapping out’ at the end of a casino blackjack shift to clock out.
Brant loads the dramatic dice in this high-stakes Vegas game towards the inevitable hand-wringing, but the final image of Dunne’s warrior finally successfully clapping out remains devastating. ‘Boom…’ indeed.