The American Pilot
10/05/2008 - 14/06/2008
"All I want to know is what has happened in my house." – The Farmer
"America has happened." – The Captain
The New Zealand premiere of acclaimed Scottish-born playwright David Greig’s fascinating and stimulating play The American Pilot opens in CIRCA One on Saturday 10th May at 8pm.
A funny, intelligent, topical and very human parable that takes a wry look at how the world sees America and America sees the world, The American Pilot combines atmospheric, poetic writing, a witty lightness of touch and a stunning climax that is both unexpected and unforgettable.
When an American plane crash-lands in a remote valley of a distant country, the residents of a small rural village take in the wounded pilot. But should they help him, murder him, or use him as a pawn in a dangerous game with the enemy?
To the Farmer his presence is bound to bring trouble; the Captain seeks the attention of the world media spotlight; a Trader wonders if can he be sold or ransomed. But for Evie, the farmer’s headstrong daughter, he is a fallen angel.
David Greig is the best-known young playwright of a high-powered Scottish generation. He has forged a relationship with audiences – not only in Edinburgh but in London and across Europe – that has made his name a real box-office draw, and become a leader of that generation, a shrewd observer of the political scene, and a spokesman for theatre and the arts in general. Today, he is dramaturg to the new National Theatre of Scotland, the home of the recent hit festival show Black Watch. And he is only 38!
The American Pilot was first performed by The Royal Shakespeare Company in 2005 in a production that went on to tour the UK. The play has also been performed in New York (Manhattan Theatre Co), Canada, around America and through Europe.
Circa’s production stars a top cast of:-
Michele Amas (Home Land) , James Ashcroft (The Brilliant Fassah), Peter Hambleton (Who Wants to be 100?), Jodie Hillock (Home Land), Bruce Phillips (Uncle Vanya), Jason Whyte (Fat Pig) and Kip Chapman (Big River) making his Circa debut as the pilot, with Michael Johnson and Zack Wi-Nera from the NZ College of Performing Arts.
THE AMERICAN PILOT
"Humorous, moving and engrossing … Superb" – Metro
"David Greig at his very best: deft and feeling, intelligent and poignant" – Evening Standard
"One of the most intellectually stimulating dramatists around … a richly provocative new play" – Michael Billington, Guardian
Opens at on Saturday 10th May at 8pm
and runs until 14th June
$20 Preview – Friday 9th May – 8pm
$20 Sunday Special – Sunday 11th May – 4pm
Tuesday & Wednesday 6.30pm
Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8pm
Adults – $38; Concessions – $30; Friends of Circa – $28
Under 25s – $20; Groups 6+ s- $32
Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki Street, Wellington
Phone 801 7992
Farmer: BRUCE PHILLIPS
Pilot: KIP CHAPMAN
Trader: JAMES ASHCROFT
Sarah: MICHELE AMAS
Evie: JODIE HILLOCK
Captain: PETER HAMBLETON
Translator: JASON WHYTE
Soldier 1: ZACK WI-NERA *
Soldier 2: MICHAEL JOHNSON *
* By arrangement with NZ College of Performing Arts
Set Designed by JOHN HODGKINS
Lighting Design by LISA MAULE
Original Music: Michael Nicholas Williams
Stage Manager: Rob Ormsby
Technical Operator: Deb McGuire
Sound FX Design: Thomas Press
Additional Sound: Marmalade Audio
Set Construction: Iain Cooper, John Hodgkins
Set Painting: Eileen McCann
Costumes: Tammy Green
Publicity: Claire Treloar
Graphic Design: Rose Miller, Parlour
Photography: Stephen A'Court
House Manager: Suzanne Blackburn
Front of House: Linda Wilson
2 hrs, incl. interval
Review by Elspeth Sandys 16th Jun 2008
Political theatre has not always had a good press. The merest sniff of propaganda or an overly polemical approach can lead to both critical and/or box office death. George Bernard Shaw had to drip feed the medicine of humour into his political plays; Bertolt Brecht had to rely on the theatricalism of German Expressionism to get his message across.
David Greig, the best known of the group of Scottish playwrights -currently taking theatres all over the world by storm, is no stranger to political theatre. Judging by his output – more than 30 plays performed in the last two decades – he has learned the lessons of the past well. The American Pilot, on the surface a grim story of culture clash and power play in which one side, the United States, was always going to win, is often funny, occasionally touching, and, in this fine production by Susan Wilson, completely engrossing. [More]
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Intriguing allegory, but …
Review by Helen Sims 06th Jun 2008
The Circa production of The American Pilot is a New Zealand production of a play written by a Scottish born playwright which is set in a nameless village, clearly somewhere in the Middle East or Balkans, which critiques American foreign policy. It’s a slightly bewildering multinational experience as a result. An American pilot, who consistently repeats his credentials, crash lands in an unnamed country (I thought it was most likely to be Afghanistan) that is rent by civil war. The blonde Southerner named Jason Reinhardt seems more concerned about the fate of his IPod than the villagers who appear to hold his life in the balance. The village he has crashed near is fighting in opposition to the side backed by America. Unable to walk, he is brought to a barn by the poor farmer who finds him. His fate is then up to the local captain of the rebel forces, who oscillates between the options of killing him or ransoming him, aided by his translator. The farmer, his wife and their daughter, as well as a local trader and the captain’s translator all enter the mix with their own views on the figure of the pilot and his fate. Clearly the point is that when America gets involved, it is the local people that end up worse off. The irony in that it is the American pilot who is seemingly the victim. However, they are each in turn infected by their brush with America; as one character informs the other “America has happened to you.”
Structurally the play mingles poetic, retrospective monologues, delivered by every character except the pilot, with scenes revolving around the pilot that are rooted in realism. Each monologue reveals a different perspective of the pilot – as an exotic beauty; a heaven sent saviour; a commercial opportunity; as a representative of all that is both right and wrong with the modern Western world. Although the monologues are beautifully written for the most part and allow the audience a privileged insight into the extent of miscommunication and deception that is occurring between characters, they sit uneasily with the explosive action of most of the scenes and also force the actors to slide uncomfortably back into the action. Director Susan Wilson also fails to allow the play to build as it feels it naturally should, particularly in the first few scenes and rushes the final one.
As the Pilot, largely unable to communicate with the villagers, Kip Chapman conveys a realistic mix of naivety, arrogance and fear. His idea of being a prisoner seems to stem far more from movies than anything else. Although the play is in English it is clear that the villagers do not understand the Pilot when he speaks to them, except for a few words understood by Evie, the daughter. The captain and trader also don’t speak English. This means that the main channel of communication is the Translator (Jason Whyte) who has a deep distrust bordering on hatred of America after his time there as a Communist exchange student and the loss of his new wife to an American shell. His translations are deliberately hostile and filled with omissions (a reflection of the media perhaps?) The Pilot’s (appalling) selection of songs on his IPod establishes some connections, but the extent of the miscommunication is indicated when the Captain listens to some hip hop and concludes it is more likely to be a code than music.
Bruce Phillips, Michelle Amas and Jodie Hillock as the Farmer, his wife Sarah and daughter, Evie respectively, all acquit their roles well. Hillock especially warmed into the role of Evie as the night progressed, although her role is perhaps the most difficult as it has the least characterisation and the most symbolism – the allusion to Joan of Arc is obvious. Jason Whyte and James Ashcroft as the loose principled Trader also carry off difficult and slightly underdeveloped roles. It is Peter Hambleton who shines as the conflicted captain of the local rebel forces. He conveys an intriguing blend of brutality, hope, despair and is thrilling in his sheer unpredictability.
In terms of technical design, the set by John Hodgkins is excellent. It works brilliantly with Lisa Maule’s lighting design. Slat beams gave a dilapidated feeling to the barn of the farmer, but also allowed light to filter through beautifully. Although I cringed at most of the songs, I understand they are the ones included in the script, allowing me to overcome my initial prejudice to the sound design!
Although it is an intriguing allegory, the play is too schematic to do justice to the moral territory it purports to explore. A redeeming feature is that the play is not clearly a pro or anti American polemic. Those who seem to be the powerful ultimately end up being the most powerless. This is not a dilemma that is confined to one particular location; it permeates everywhere that the USA is involved. This is reinforced by the unnamed setting – it simply doesn’t matter because the problems could be or already are everywhere. However, an intricate network of issues becomes a jumble of words spoken by characters that never rise above the status of symbols, despite the fine performances of the entire cast. This is not helped by the end when all subtleties are destroyed by a use of force – ultimate resolution was always going to be impossible but this feels like a particularly unsatisfying cop out. Perhaps this is reflective of American foreign policy, particularly in respect of Iraq, but the questions raised in the play are not well treated ultimately. In the case of The American Pilot I would attribute this to the structure of the play, which oscillates too rigidly between monologue and scene and direction which at times felt a little rushed and did not allow the intricacies and failures in understanding to fully emerge.
Originally published in The Lumière Reader.
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Gritty and provocative
Review by Lynn Freeman 14th May 2008
In a welcome twist to the old captive/captor scenario, Scottish playwright David Greig has thrust an injured American pilot into a poor rural village in an unnamed country which is in the midst of a government/rebel conflict. The pilot just wants to get home, the villagers are at a loss to know what to do with him – he’s either a strategic asset or a substantial liability, or in the view of young Evie, their saviour.
The American Pilot reiterates that America is a pervasive force, whether through direct interference in other the politics of other countries – in this play America supports the government against the insurgents, USA missiles have killed innocents – and more insidiously though the media. America ignites the imagination, and greed, of some of these villagers. Others understand that the USA stands for power and if they can harness it for their own purpose, they may be able to beat the odds stacked so strongly against them.
Greig wrote the recent NZ International Arts Festival hit, Black Watch [incorrect – Gregory Burke is the credited playwright; David Grieg is currently the dramaturg at the National Theatre of Scotland which produced Black Watch – ed, Theatreview], and this play is just as provocative, gritty, violent and compelling. There is less spectacle, consequently it’s a more intimate work.
There is no black and white here. The pilot (Kip Chapman in top form) is badly injured, arrogant, but also a family man who fears death, and who tries to warn his captors that they risk death if they harm him. The rebels (Peter Hambleton as the sunglass and gun toting Captain and Jason Whyte as the unhinged translator) are fighting for what they believe in, their violence stems from injustice, fear, a sense of helplessness, and loss.
The farming family (Bruce Phillips, Michele Amas and Jodie Hillock, all excellent as father, mother and daughter) who save and try to shield him, also pay a high price for their humanitarianism. You even understand why the trader (a cunning James Ashcroft) feels he has to look out for number one, in these desperate times.
It’s a cracking script, sensitively directed by Susan Wilson and acted by her cast. Lis Maule makes the most of the lighting opportunities offered by John Hodgkins’ terrific roughsawn planked set, and Michael Nicolas Williams and Thomas Press have together created a rich soundscape of music and sfx.
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Political drama echoes the events of real life
Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 12th May 2008
Long gone are the days when America could be described, as it was by Arnold Toynbee, as a large friendly dog in a very small room; every time it wags its tail it knocks over a chair.
More than chairs get knocked over in David Grieg’s absorbing and unsettling if uneven play The American Pilot. However, it is neither a simplistic anti- nor pro- America piece of propaganda. It is an allegory about how America’s power and wealth and American culture from Daffy Duck to the scatological hip hop music on the pilot’s iPod permeate the world and how ordinary people react to them.
Irritatingly set in an unnamed country that stands in for Iraq, Afghanistan, or any Middle Eastern or Balkan country that the US has been involved militarily, The American Pilot concerns Jason Reinhardt (Kip Chapman) whose plane has crashed in the mountains of a country divided by a long and bloody civil war in which the US is supporting the repressive government.
The wounded Jason is found and sheltered by a poor and compassionate farmer who lives in a rebel area which is controlled by The Captain (Peter Hambleton) who sees the pilot as a possible hostage to attract the world’s attention to his cause. The Farmer (Bruce Phillips) sees him as the most beautiful human being he has ever met and his daughter Evie (Jodie Hillock) sees him as a gift from god, a heavenly messenger. The Farmer’s wife (Michele Amas) is more pragmatic.
At one point someone says, "He’s just an American. Don’t be too impressed." However, everyone is one way or another, including The Captain’s nerdy Translator (Jason Whyte) who as a communist and a former student in the US cannot forgive America for the loss of his fiancée who was evaporated in an American missile attack during a wedding. And then there’s the Trader (James Ashcroft) who sees the pilot as a new source of income.
Despite the vagueness of the setting and the characters being generically named and all but the pilot being given monologues in which they address from time to time the audience, the play is never a lecture or a polemic but often a gripping and frighteningly realistic drama of an event that has occurred all to often in the past few years.
The cast is uniformly strong and Susan Wilson’s controlled and powerful production, aided by John Hodgkins’ marvelous setting of a broken-down wooden barn that Lisa Maule has lit with her usual sensitivity, allows us to believe, particularly at the predictable but superbly staged ending, the answer to the Farmer’s question "What happened in my house?" The Captain replies "America has happened."
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More to find in parable of power and pain?
Review by John Smythe 12th May 2008
What the USA has done and is doing to the world in the names of ‘foreign policy’, ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’ and the ‘global market’ has become one of the most pressing political issues of our time. But it’s a huge topic riddled with limitations on our access to knowledge and ‘truth’ as quests for power, and sometimes ‘justice’, are pursued at every level. So how does a playwright find a point of focus and an enduring theme let alone contain it within a viable piece of live theatre?
Scottish playwright David Greig’s ingenious answer (which premiered in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2005 Stratford Festival, at The Other Place) is to distil it into a parable; an allegorical microcosm of the whole global catastrophe that makes a dramatic virtue of how little anyone really knows or understands as they create their own realities and act accordingly.
An American Pilot with a broken leg, his dog tags and an iPod is discovered in a farm shed, in a remote rural valley of a small (unnamed) country where civil war has become a way of life. It emerges that a Communist regime was destroyed by American forces, with much ‘collateral damage’ in the process, and this small community harbours a rebel guerrilla force. Exactly who stands for what in the warring factions seems irrelevant. They simply fight, habitually, for any small tactical advantage they can gain in a war they’ll never see the end of.
It’s a patriarchal society, the farmer and his family are God-fearing, the women wear head scarves and long skirts, but the guerrilla Captain is intent on wielding all the power through fear and the inflicting of pain if (in his estimation) it’s necessary. His rationale is that life involves finding a workable balance between power and pain.
And of course the Pilot is primed to recite the standard threat, that if they let him contact his people they will be rewarded whereas if they harm him all manner of terrors will be heaped upon them.
This Circa production, directed by Susan Wilson with costumes by Tammy Green and original music by Michael Nicholas Williams, could be set in the lesser-known Georgia, where Eastern Europe meets Western Asia, while the accent Kip Chapman gives the Pilot roots him firmly in the state of Georgia USA. An inspired juxtaposition. (I can’t help but wonder if there is an intentional nod towards Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle here.)
A number of characters address the audience directly and retrospectively, from beyond the moment about to be dramatised. This hindsight lucidity contrasts nicely with the central theme of non-communication, where the famer’s daughter knows only phrase-book English, and a guerrilla force Translator’s command of English is limited, especially when the American has no concept that his way of taking is strange. Because we are in the privileged position of understanding everyone, we gain a clear insight into the inevitability of miscommunication and how dangerous that can be.
Bruce Phillips’ gruff Framer captures a man whose natural inclinations as a father and fellow human being are subverted by fear and social convention, although I can’t say I see the moment – which he has told us about in advance – when he feels such tenderness towards the pilot that he wants to kiss him.
As Sarah, his wife, Michele Amas epitomises the sometimes ruthless pragmatism of the maternal instinct. Their daughter, Evie, is drawn as a fledgling latter-day Joan of Arc and Jodie Hillock embodies beautifully her belief that she is special, while her earnest imitation of an American pop star gyrating in a video clip (as seen on a friend’s TV) is poignant in its gauche innocence.
Peter Hambleton’s brutal Captain is all the more unnerving for not being a psychopath. His methodology is considered, measured and gut-churning. As the relatively educated Translator, and the Captain’s heir-apparent, Jason Whyte effectively reveals the state of being of a man whose wife Belle evaporated when a wedding celebration got in the way of an American missile.
When the Trader was first mention I thought I heard "traitor" – and maybe I did. Aptly personified by James Ashcroft, he gives a whole new meaning to "the margins of history" when he tells us his only loyalty is to the margin he earns on any given deal. While one may expect him to recognise the iPod and know the tradable value of its contents, he’s not the only one conversant with ubiquitous American products. Even the farmer recognises Daffy Duck. But what price a fresh, young, if slightly damaged, American pilot?
Trapped as he is by his wound, a rope and his language, Kip Chapman does an excellent job of communicating the Pilot’s flawed humanity and unwitting arrogance as a miniscule cog in a massive machine, beyond his own comprehension.
As all these conflicting agendas play out, the tension is palpable. So too is the collective wish for a breakthough to rational understanding and intelligent, humane behaviour. Eventually even the Captain’s notion of exploiting Evie’s spiritual delusions for political advantage seems like a preferable option …
But of course the war machine is a blunt instrument and, on the front lines at least, subtlety is not in its vocabulary. The ending is as shattering and absolute as it is doubtless inevitable – and yet, as the drama unfolds, it is unpredictable: something of a theatrical coup.
John Hodgkins’ slatted wood set design, Lisa Maule’ lighting design and Thomas Press’s sound FX design work together superbly throughout and conspire at the end to deliver a full-on experience of global super power.
All that said, I do have a sense there is more to this play than this production has yet found. The clues are in the premonitory monologues which invite us in to deeper level of each character’s being. The challenge, then, is to find the space between the lines to allow those levels to communicate non-verbally, in the actual moments when they compel their actions.
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