The alienation of a drone operator is explored in the Irish premiere of Grounded. Director Selina Cartmell tells Padraic Killeen how the character is relevant for us all in the internet age
NOW in its 21st year, the Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival returns to the capital next week, boasting yet another mesmerising mishmash of theatre, dance, music, circus, comedy, and heaven knows what else. The occasion sees the return of the Spiegeltent, a much loved Fringe venue of yesteryear.
One of the festival’s most enticing shows is a production of George Brant’s acclaimed one-woman play Grounded.
Telling the story of a female fighter pilot who guides drone planes over the Middle East, Brant’s monologue has won gongs galore since debuting in 2013. A version starring Anne Hathaway was recently a hit on Broadway, and now the Irish premiere comes to us courtesy of Irish actor Clare Dunne and director Selina Cartmell.
Renowned for delivering punchy fare, Cartmell is one of this country’s premier directors. Her revival of Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats is currently playing at the Abbey Theatre. Having already been intrigued by Brant’s play, she was convinced to stage it following a meeting with Julie Taymor in London earlier this year.
Taymor — popularly known for her work on The Lion King, and one of the heavyweights of international theatre — had just directed Hathaway in Grounded, and she suggested to Cartmell that she consider doing her own version. Cartmell had served a spell as Taymor’s protégé in the mid-2000s as part of a corporately sponsored arts initiative.
Cartmell’s first task was to recruit an actor with the requisite mettle to play a cocky fighter pilot. Step forward, the hardy Clare Dunne.
“Clare has a steeliness about her,” says Cartmell. “And she has an appetite for the work and, obviously, she has the gift. I’ve seen her in a few things in London recently and she’s been on my radar for a while, and this role just seemed the perfect fit.”
The play centres on a nameless F16 pilot who — having become pregnant — is ‘grounded’ and reassigned to flying remote-control drones over the Middle East.
Now stationed in a trailer in the American desert, she stares into a computer screen 12 hours a day in pursuit of a target many thousands of miles away. The story clearly engages with a range of issues — among them gender politics and the nature of modern warfare — but, as Cartmell points out, the pilot’s fate perfectly encapsulates our current malaise in the West: that disturbing remoteness from reality that, in the internet age, seems to afflict us all.
“It actually speaks to us as human beings,” she says. “It asks: ‘What are we doing? To ourselves, and to others who are too far away from us to allow us to be affected by it. It’s about how someone can become desensitised by sitting behind a screen all day, pressing a button to annihilate and kill, rather than having to do it in the flesh, live, and in the moment. And that resonates with what’s going on in social media, for instance, and how we feel that it’s okay to put something up about someone because it doesn’t affect us in that precise moment. So there’s a lot going on in the play and at many different levels.”
Notably, Cartmell’s company Siren Productions have enjoyed tremendous success at the Fringe over the years, winning Best Production in 2003 for La Musica and then again in 2010 for her contemporary version of Medea. That Cartmell continues to produce new work at the Fringe is significant, demonstrating that the event is not simply a space for up-and-coming performers but a vital platform for new work by artists of all kinds, no matter how established they may be.
“La Musica seems like a lifetime ago now,” says Cartmell. “But I feel it’s important always to keep coming back to where you started and to plug back into that kind of energy. The Fringe festival feels like the perfect platform for this piece, in terms of what the play is saying, its energy, and the actor’s relationship with the audience.”
Moreover, Cartmell is bemused by the idea that she is ‘established’.
“I really feel as much an outsider as ever,” she says. “It’s just that I’m working in slightly larger spaces. If you ever did feel established then you’d have to give up. You’re always searching and always having these specific relationships.
“The way that you create the work is so influenced by who you work with. Everyone thinks ‘Oh, it’s the director’, but actually there is so much built around the company you’re lucky enough to work with… So much is influenced by the chemistry of the company. The more I make theatre the more I feel that.”
Grounded runs Sep 5-12. See www.fringefest.com
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