Review: Grounded, Riverside Theatres

This production is spectacularly relevant, brilliantly performed and scary as hell.
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Emily Havea in Grounded. Photo by Noni Carroll Photograph.

‘How do they remember all those lines?’ is an often heard phrase as audiences leave the theatre after a one-person show. That, however, is not the chatter which was bubbling through the crowd after Grounded from the National Theatre of Parramatta at Riverside Theatres. The production is spectacularly relevant, brilliantly performed and scary as hell, sparking a barrage of conversation pulsing with the frightening implications of modern warfare; on innocents, and for participants.

Grounded is a play by George Brant from 2013 and it speaks about the little discussed topic of remote killing. The Pilot, a reliable narrator, speaks directly and intimately to we, audience and confidant, as she explains her love of flying. It compels her, giving her life purpose. Purpose expressed in her Air Force duties and an implied belief in the American way. The Pilot’s life will change with her unplanned experience of love, family and subsequent re-deployment as a drone pilot.

Written in short, thin lines of script, this play requires a particular kind of acting skill to pull it from the page but performer Emily Havea and director Dom Mercer have created a production which is much more than skilful. In a beautifully conceived performance, Havea has complete command of the technical aspects of solo work and this allows her to rise to new levels of engagement with an audience.

With eye contact and force of narrative, Havea pulls the audience into her world building. At any moment, she gives her character the low, soft tones of introspection; suddenly contrasting that with a warm loudness of emotion and barely controlled disturbance. As she moves around the stage with motivational propulsion or pulls up short as a thought takes her, Havea has an economy of gesture which requires the audience to attend to the voice.

Emily Havea in Grounded. Photo by Noni Carroll Photograph.

The lighting assists at times by placing her in a box of light which, given the tiered seating, works better that usual but there are too many cues which distract. ‘The Blue’ is below The Pilot not above or around her and the white cockpit of walls are washed with the considered choice of a limited palette but a jarring lack of cohesive place setting. In the box however, the character can drop her head and the visage completely disappears. It’s eerie, as are the side-thrown shadows which give an evocation of other selves. The audio design is stellar though. Small bites of sound that pluck at wire strings with a scamper of discord and disorientation.

Havea’s creation begins in power, this is a strong and capable woman, with a sexy strength that avoids any clichéd softening. Never straying into any tropes of a masculinised woman or feminised soldiering, The Pilot is uniquely knowable as she changes slightly and then more rapidly. It is a performance to be wondered at when a little time dulls the outrage at the absurdity of war.

Innocence is not an option after experiencing Grounded. This is a production which is written to confront beliefs about modern armed conflict, directed to maximise that confrontation and performed by a theatrical risk-taker who dares you not to look.

Rating: 4 ½ stars ★★★★☆

National Theatre of Parramatta
Playwright: George Brant
Director: Dom Mercer
With Emily Havea
Set and Costume Designer: Jonathan Hindmarsh
Lighting Designer: Alexander Berlage
Sound Designer: Mary Rapp

14-23 March 2019
Riverside, National Theatre of Parramatta

Judith Greenaway
About the Author
Judith grew up as a theatre brat with parents who were jobbing actors and singers. She has now retired from a lifetime of teaching and theatre work with companies small and large and spends evenings exploring the wealth of indie and professional theatre available in Sydney.