Drones, Baby, Drones – Review

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Modern warfare is terrifying. Okay, yes, all war is terrifying. But it’s sickening to think that people, communities, towns and cities can be wiped out by a drone flying at 35,000 feet, controlled by a hipster, sitting on a bean bag and sipping lattes, 7,000 miles away.

Is this the future of war? No more troops sent into battle. Instead the air will be filled by little robots flying over enemy territory and dropping their Hellfire cargoes.

“We don’t fight wars anymore, we process information.”

Drones, Baby, Drones, which opened last night at London’s Arcola Theatre, is chilling. But, for all its clinical authenticity, it fails to offer up anything we don’t already know.

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The title is an umbrella term for two one-act plays. The first, This Tuesday, refers to a weekly meeting that America’s president has with his security personnel to discuss who should be put on the hit-list for extermination. The Kid is set 24-hours later in the home of someone who pilots the drones.

Did I miss something? Who gave the USA carte blanche to act as the world’s judge, jury and hangman? Was there a global vote among nations that decided America would draw up a kill list and then work their way through it, knocking off anyone they perceived to be a threat?

What about the collateral damage? The innocent victims taken out by a drone strike?

The sheer arrogance of their actions is breathtaking. It doesn’t occur to any of the nation’s hierarchy that another country could retaliate by the same methods.

They have learned nothing from 9/11 when America was knocked sideways by the audacity of a foreign power in launching an attack on their home soil.

Of course both plays are political but they both scream out for attention because – well, this is humanity we’re talking about. Lives reduced to nothing more than figures in an X-Box game.

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Writers Ron Hutchinson and Christina Lamb are very good at giving us the soundbites on why the USA has a drone wars programme but their one-hour play views like an episode of Ch4’s Homeland.

Director Nicolas Kent keeps scenes ridiculously short, intercut like a TV show, to offer a cold, clinical, inhuman, insight into why the drones are sent out. We learn little about the characters who are just sketches of familiar stereotypes.

CIA director, Maxine Forman, is in a hospital watching her daughter fight for life after a car crash. Yet her top priority isn’t standing by the bed, it’s concentrating on her Tuesday brief with the president.

Legal counsel, Jay Neroli, turns up and the pair argue about the ethical dilemma of killing a terrorist by drone and taking out an entire wedding party which is also at the kill zone.

We see White House security adviser Doug Gibson leave the bed of his Monday night mistress to go to the briefing – but not before being given an ear-bashing by intern Meredith.

“You work for a guy who campaigned against water-boarding and secret rendition, virtually accused the CIA of running torture factories, but who ended up heading the world’s first high tech assassination bureau.”

And then there’s the military point of view as given by Classics scholar and tactician, Commander Ben Crowe, who obeys orders – no matter what.

“If you’re going to fight a war by computer you might as well do it in Starbucks. Put on a pair of old jeans, order a latte and finish the guy off without a second thought.”

All three key players are frighteningly without a shred of humanity. They no longer see real people. Just names, targets, missions.

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Arcola’s artistic director, Mehmet Ergen directs David Greig’s The Kid and it’s the more engaging drama of the two.

We’re at a cheese and wine party in Nevada. Pete and his pregnant wife, Alice, are entertaining his number two, Shawna, and her husband Ramon.

Here we meet the people at the pointy end of the stick. They may be in a military compound in Creech Air Force Base but Pete and Shawna man the joysticks that fly the drones over targets in Afghanistan.

And, finally, there is an admission that even they can suffer the stress of conflict when Shawna admits: “Some puke, some sweat. I shake.”.

What stops everyone in their tracks is a speech by Alice. Nursing her burgeoning bump she offers up her final solution to the war on terrorism and it’s harrowing.

The principal cast of five give standout performances. Anne Adams, as Maxine and Shawna, is frighteningly cold and unemotional; Joseph Balderrama offers a note of caution as lawyer Jay, but is entirely gung ho as Ramon; Sam Dale is every inch a soldier and a civil rights campaigner; Tom McKay plays it tough as Pete and Doug.

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Rose Reynolds freezes your soul as Alice who seems incapable of seeing the enemy as real people while, as Doug’s lover, Meredith, she tries to make sense of this futuristic, high-tech, onslaught.

Anders Lustgarten’s Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre, which premiered at the Arcola last year, is the drone play by which others are measured and this doesn’t come close to having the same impact. Perhaps it’s because he took audiences to ground zero with the victims rather than a briefing room at the White House.

The film, Eye In The Sky, has also covered the same subject in graphic detail.

I’m guessing that your opinions on Drones, Baby, Drones, will probably boil down to politics.

With the American elections about to get under way it’s frightening to imagine either candidate with their hands on the button.

But this play doesn’t take the issue any further forward. I found it thought-provoking, horribly numbing and nightmarish. There’s something decidedly dishonourable about fighting the enemy from the comfort of a Starbucks.

Drones, Baby, Drones runs at the Arcola Theatre until November 26.

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