In 1982, the British overseas territory of The Falkland Islands was the subject of a ten week undeclared war. In his final blog, writer Brad Birch tells how his study of the turmoil endured by the Islanders led to a story for the stage.
I feel like the Falklands are a magic eye trick. Relax your view and it makes sense. Try to focus and pin it down and it no longer makes sense.
For me the odd phenomena of the Falklands is akin to a few cells of human tissue being cultivated in a petri dish. It is a little sample of Britain, existing somewhere far away from its host body.
It was going to the islands and meeting the islanders that made me understand what this play had to be. So often the Islanders’ story of the conflict is overlooked – perhaps because it’s too complicated for any retelling that has a specific political agenda. Perhaps it’s because the Islanders experience feels so distant, because they are so distant. Being able to reach them is what made this play possible.
To be honest, I came home burdened by the weight of the story. I felt overawed by the amount of material I'd gathered, and daunted by the task of translating this epic story into a play.
I read back through everything. My first attempts at jotting down notes fell into two traps: either trying to explain the reasons behind the conflict or walking through the events of the conflict in lieu of a plot.
I felt like I was bullying myself into having an opinion on the conflict when, to be frank, that wasn't my job. To be completely clear with you now, and I'm sorry if you're expecting some loud, incendiary opinion that attempts to put a full stop on the whole dispute, or at least is so outrageous that we end up with a scandalous play that gets column inches written about it - I can understand every side in the argument. I've come away from interviews with people who are pro-British and pro-Argentinian and agreed with some aspect of what everyone's said. For a time I even felt a bit guilty about that. As though to be insightful I had to have a loud political opinion to go alongside all the others that exist about the Falklands conflict. I ironically thought that to stand out I had to do what others have done.
The conflict made the Falklands loaded with a meaning that it might not have intended. It became a Truman Show of Britishness. I met some Islanders who have never visited the United Kingdom and you get the impression they’ve got no interest in visiting it either. And I think this is key. They consider themselves British, but they also know that they are entirely their own thing too.
Stanley feels like any rural town. I grew up in one myself, so the feeling of the place made immediate sense. They are big on tradition. May Balls and Easter services, to the less formal Two Nighter settlement parties, all feature heavily in the play. And that’s because of their significance on the Islands. What I realised is that in the olden days annual festivities marked not just the passing of time but the celebration that the community has managed to survive for another year. It was a very hard way of life for a very long time.
I had taken copious notes during my trip to The Falklands and a visual record as well as a written one. I wanted to try and capture as much detail as possible. I was systemic in my note taking. I recorded interviews, wrote notes, took photographs and then kept a daily diary. I felt the job then was to hoover up everything, without filtering any material. I didn’t want to subconsciously start making decisions about the play before I knew what it was.
And I’m glad I held my nerve now. There was one evening when I was transcribing a very old inventory list of goods shipped into the Globe Store. And as I was doing it I was positive that this was futile and beyond useless and a complete waste of time. But in actual fact there’s a whole sequence in the play where that research has been drawn on.
My breakthrough came when I realised that beyond anything else, I've felt a deep sympathy with everyone who actually lived through it, those who were there. And that goes for soldiers - both professional and conscripted - and the Islanders. So I had to listen to that instinct. I had to be brave enough to say that this play will tell a different story. One that doesn't get tangled into the political or intellectual argument, but one that looks at the history from a different perspective. Not from the top down, but from the ground up.
And I felt vindicated, and excited by this idea, because it was speaking to my experience, I was able to pull on a resource that I knew was rare - I'd actually been to the Islands. I'd been to the sites. I'd met people who had been through it. This isn't another play set in Westminster or Buenos Aires (though there are some scenes that are), this is a play about the Islanders told from the Islands' view up.
And that means that at times some characters have big views, it means that audiences may disagree with some things said, but I hope what's understood is the value of seeing this conflict, which is still burning, from a different perspective.
This didn't make it easy, though. Because with the decision to write a play like this, there are two - perhaps contradictory - weights of responsibility. Firstly, the fact that this happened to real people - how does one go about telling the story of others? How does one apply storytelling craft to situations where you know those involved may see it and perhaps even disagree with the choices you've made? And secondly, there's a responsibility to the audience. Stories have to be framed and structured and focused in a way that makes sense to an audience, so that audiences can understand, empathise and connect with the characters in the play. To present something strictly factual but dramatically unsatisfying would betray the trust of the audience who have paid to see the show.
As a solution, I chose to tell the story using composite characters. I find the term artistic license fundamentally unsatisfactory because it sounds indulgent, or that the decisions I've made are centred around me and not the what the art requires. In actual fact, I think it's more about getting to the metaphorical truth of the matter. It's about translating the story into a way that makes sense in a different medium - from life to art.
Nonetheless, I hope Islanders themselves recognise the world of the play. I hope to have translated what Island life had felt like in that extraordinary time.
Listen here to Brad Birch talking about Falkland Sound on BBC Radio 4's Today programme (from Friday 4 August).