Deafinitely Theatre’s production of Grounded by George Brant is unusual, gripping, and important. It takes the terse rhythmic prose of Brant’s single character the unnamed F16 fighter pilot played by Charmaine Wombwell and integrates this with a second figure, an alternate choreographed British Sign Language interpretation of the pilot simultaneously performed by Nadia Nadarajah.
The woman pilot is proud to be flying "into the blue", to be fighting the enemy in Iraq, to be raining down missiles "on the minarets and the concrete below" returning "them to deserts, to particles, to sand". And afterwards there are no moments of conscience as she drinks in celebration with male pilots. She is tough, and feels untouchably strong. It even surprises her when a civilian Eric tries to strike up a relationship.
These things change when she has a child. Missing the service, she returns to duty a few years later only to be allocated to what she contemptuously calls the "chair force" in a Las Vegas desert trailer, flying drones on assassination missions in foreign lands. She feels she has been grounded. There is no longer the freedom and power of flying into the blue, but instead the tedium of a grey "putty world for me to stare at twelve hours a day" What is more, she starts to identify her home life with those she is assigned to kill.
Brant’s story touches on the difficulties of woman breaking into a world dominated by men, the ugly morality of a brutal war in Iraq and the all-pervading surveillance capacity of those in power. But he only touches on these lightly. The power of the piece and the reason there have been quite a few productions of the play in recent times is the disturbing intensity of the language and story.
Ramesh Meyyappan has choreographed a powerful British Sign Language performance to accompany the spoken performance. And this is what makes this production important. Both take place in the same space, sometimes they are linked, as when Charmaine looks down at her imagined child in the arms of Nadia. At other times, Nadia will take centre stage beneath a spotlight as Charmaine behind in semi-darkness speaks the words. The unified performance works.
According to the organisation Action on Hearing Loss, there are over 800,000 people in the UK who are severely or profoundly deaf. Almost all of them have friends and family who can hear. But it will be very difficult for them to see theatre together. Even when a performance is given a British Sign Language interpretation, the interpreter often has to perch somewhere on the corner of a stage, making it awkward for a deaf person to focus on the stage action and the interpreter. That is why this successful integration of two actors using two languages at the same time is to be welcomed.
If you know any theatre people, take them to this show. They will enjoy it, and it just might encourage them to support a more inclusive theatre.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna