Drones Baby Drones finds its target at the Arcola Theatre

Saturday 5th November 2016, matinée

Despite the lurid title, a quote from a former US defence secretary, Drones, Baby,Drones is a serious attempt to explore a form of warfare which needs to be brought out from the shadows.  Some of the names on the bill were already familiar to us from the marathon cycle of plays about nuclear weapons which Nicolas Kent put on at the Tricycle four years ago – The Bomb – A Partial History.  Here he directs while Ron Hutchinson and David Grieg write (or in Hutchinson’s case, co-write) a play each to make a compelling double-bill. At 110 minutes total running time, it’s a little shorter than the ten play spectacular they previously contributed to, but this creative team have lost none of their edge, and they have homed in on another timely and disturbing subject.

The first play refers to the regular Tuesday meetings at the White House where the targets for drone strikes were chosen.  The second explores the aftermath of a strike from the point of view of the ‘pilots’ who carry out strikes on the other side of the world.  Both plays are introduced by quotations from Clive Stafford Smith, Director of Reprieve, giving some unpalatable facts about the realities of drone warfare.

‘This Tuesday’, written by Ron Hutchinson and Christina Lamb, is skilfully put together and engaging, and hits the ground running with a serious car accident that becomes a pivotal event for one of the leading characters, as well as a metaphor for the strikes themselves.  The personal lives and political arguments are interwoven seamlessly, pressing home the message that however sophisticated the technology, there will always be a human, with all their limitations and failings, somewhere in the mix.  The various justifications, all claiming some kind of logic and objectivity, are paraded before us leaving a powerful sense that these meetings may not be as objective and rational as they claim. At well under an hour, though, this play does feel unfinished, and in such as short time, there is not much opportunity for the political arguments to get beyond the superficial.

David Grieg’s ‘The Kid’ explores what drone warfare does to the perpetrators, puncturing the myth of the ‘surgical strike’ and the idea that the such wars can be ‘casualty free’.  They may escape physical injury, but the mental toll is clear.  This drama is less fragmented, and with a cast of four (two drone operators and their partners), it has the feel of a cosy domestic drama ready to turn into something much darker.  The play starts with a celebration of the assassination of a long-pursued terrorist, except that one of the operators saw a small boy running towards the explosion, the other didn’t.  As the truth comes out along with the recriminations, the unnatural demands become clear.  The play ends with a spine-chilling and challenging proposition from the least likely character, the newly pregnant wife of one of the pilots.

The cast of these plays don’t waste any time establishing their characters, and they all rise to the challenge.  Anne Adams raises the emotional pitch right from the start with her performance as the mother, hysterical with grief and panic, who has just found out that her daughter may die from her injuries in a horrific car crash.  In the midst of the horror of her personal situation, she tries to ensure she can attend the Tuesday meeting to ensure the decision goes her way – she is desperate that her chosen ‘target’ is eliminated.  Not many actresses can be sympathetic and repellent at the same time, but she manages the feat. In her portrayal of the drone pilot in ‘The Kid’ she subtly suggests the gradual mental attrition of the work, which no amount of glorification can seem to alleviate.

Rose Reynolds effortlessly glides from the cocky intern, who takes great delight in taunting her married boyfriend about his Tuesday meetings, to the conflicted mother-to-be married to a drone operator and pleased to be able to enjoy the comforts of living in the suburbs on the other side of the world and have her husband home every night.  Tom McKay portrays a naive ambition in both of his characters, making a neat connection between the gung-ho security adviser who helps to choose the targets, and the drone pilot who carries out the orders.  The confident, childlike, facade is easily dented, revealing a deeper struggle with denial. Joseph Balderrama brings a grounded quality to the action, firstly as the jaded lawyer, and secondly as the partner who desperately wants to be supportive but lacks the imagination to do so.

This was a welcome taste of serious political drama, but it did leave us wanting more.  And just a few days later we were reading about new attempts to improve the performance of pilots and the difficulty of retaining them.

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