INTERVIEW: Falkland Sound playwright Brad Birch tells Gill Sutherland about how he set about turning the story of the conflict into a new play for the RSC
In 1982, the Falkland Islands was the subject of a ten-week undeclared war. Here Pinter Prize-winning playwright Brad Birch tells Gill Sutherland about how he set about turning the story of the conflict into new RSC play Falkland Sound, including a story-finding mission to the islands 8,000 miles away.
Like his writing, young playwright Brad Birch, 35, is an unpretentious but deeply interesting sort of chap. As we chat about his new play Falkland Sound, premiering at the Swan, he’s animated, likable and easy-going. His plays include Missing People, Black Mountain, The Brink, Gardening: For the Unfulfilled and Alienated (winner of the Edinburgh Fringe First award, 2013) and Tender Bolus.
In 2016, he was awarded the Harold Pinter Commission at the Royal Court. His plays are published by Methuen Drama and his first anthology, Plays One, was published in 2018. He is currently under commission with film production companies Rooks Nest and Film4.
How did the RSC commission for Falkland Sound come about?
Ten years ago the RSC came to see a show of mine at Soho theatre – a studio show two-hander. I thought ‘God I dunno why the RSC are seeing this?’. But they obviously saw something in the writing and sensed that I wanted to tell bigger stories about communities and moments in time.
We just kept the dialogue going for a few years and the provocation from them was to tell a story about Britain.
You always get a better perspective of something if you are looking further away from – time and distance. Eight thousand miles is a far distance to look back at Britain.
Why the Falklands?
It’s a story in the family. My uncle joined the navy as a teenager, passing out over Christmas 1981, and then that spring the conflict happened. He wanted to see the world and in the early 80s there wasn’t much work around. I don’t think he intended to be fighting in conflict… He survived but his ship was sunk.
It was only when the RSC asked me to write about Britain did I think well the Falklands were really interesting. It’s present in the cultural story of our country but not as present as other events in our recent history.
I also thought it was an interesting period of time, 1979 to 82 – really moving out of the post-war mentality to a Thatcher neo-liberal mentality. And how a conflict over a territory in the South Atlantic proved to be really important.
And in 2018 you ended up going to the islands.
So I pitched to do a play about the conflict and they said well you should go. I wasn’t expecting that! It was in the process of going there I realised I don’t know anything about the islanders – do they speak English? What kind of accents do they have?
The thing I didn’t want to do was rehash the argument because I don’t know what value that has and I’m probably not the person to do that so I wanted to do something different. So I thought I explore the islanders and what life is like on the island. And what it must have been like to go through the conflict and then through that think well what does Britain and British mean? All these things became interesting questions
What did actually going to the islands give you?
I was on the island for about three weeks and I was meeting people and going places. For me I have this theory that the most ambitious works of art are perfume adverts because the one thing you can’t do is just show what the thing smells like. So you have use imagery and sound and create the feeling of what the smell is. So I wanted to recreate the feeling of being on the Falkland Islands. It’s a mix and match of very familiar things like red telephone boxes and a Waitrose’s but then all the fauna and flora of that part of the world. It was only through talking to people and the research did I realise this isn’t a straightforward thing – it’s complicated and weird and interesting. That’s why I wanted to write a play.
Quick history question, why are people on the islands?
There’s about 200 islands but there are two main islands and in the mid-1600s it was first sighted by the British and then the French landed on it followed by the British. Then it changed hands through the Spanish. These islands were uninhabited at the time – there weren’t indigenous people on them. Everyone who went there recognised it would be hard to live there – trees could barely grow there. When Argentina claimed independence they then inherited all the Spanish territories which included them. That’s where the argument is. In 1833 the British kicked the Spanish out. Which at this point was just a garrison of people – cowboys and stuff. And Britain decide to make it a territory and send people there to be farmers. Until then if you wanted to go from one side of America to the other you had to go all the way round so it was quite helpful to have a stopping point. That was its main purpose for a long time.
So the play puts the focus on the islanders?
That’s the drive behind the play. I certainly didn’t want to write a military or political play – I wanted to write about people and community. Even now we know so little about the people. People think there were two sides to the conflict: British and Argentinian – but there’s a third side, and that’s the people who live there and went through it and are still going through it.
Throughout the history of the conflict it seems like the islanders voices are buried beneath these sovereign voices fighting over this very small piece of land. I don’t want to get into that argument – but also it’s the elephant in the room. Not talking about it would be like talking about Neil Armstrong but not mentioning the moon landing. This show isn’t about the argument it is about the islander’s experience.
How did going to the island change your preconceptions of it?
So I knew it was going to be very windy and the weather is quite hostile there. I’m from a farming community and a small town myself in Wales. I’m from a town with 5,000 people and there’s 2,000 people there, so it’s very different but also feels like a community I recognise – yet it’s nearer the South Pole than the equator.
How did meeting people translate into the script?
I think with writing a show about a real event there are three lines of responsibility – one is to be true to the history, and then to the people whose story I am telling and then to the audience to tell a story that makes sense for a night at the theatre. There is literal truth and metaphorical truth. Sometimes we need to use our skills as theatre makers to step away from the literal truth and try to find a truth that encapsulates the real. So we’ve decided to tell the story through all fictionalised characters. Some islanders have read the play and they’re like “Oh I know exactly who that is” but it’s amalgamating people. For example, there’s a functioning hospital on the island but we couldn’t represent all the people that were working there so they’re kind of sucked into one character.
What can the audience expect the play– what genre does it fall into and what will people leave thinking?
I hope there are funny bits in it – there have been in rehearsals. I hope that audiences come and learn something about an event that they think they already know lots about. People lived through this trauma thing that people went through and they still live with it today. I hope that the show untangles that. With the past few years we’ve gone through something hard with Covid, and to just untangle that feeling of what a community does when it heals…
Is Thatcher in it?
Thatcher might be in it, yeah! It’s set predominately on the island and at the time. But we also hope that you get a sense of timelessness as well – this a community of actors sharing a story. There’s a sense that the actors know that the audience are there and that they are telling them this story. It will hopefully feel like a shared story.
So it’s not preaching or coming to any conclusions?
No – my cup of tea as a member of the audience as well as a writer are shows that ask questions rather than make massive statements. I was really keen not to rehash the argument and come to any conclusions from my perch. I really respect the Argentinian and the British perspective and the islanders’ perspective. Hopefully someone who holds any of those views could come to the show and appreciate that this is a show that is exploring what happened rather than stating what is wrong or right.
Final question, would you ever want to go back to the islands?
I would. I did really love it there. I remember driving through Lafonia where there are these huge grasslands and the sun is beating down and it’s beautiful. It’s stunning but also a beguiling and difficult place. Amazing really.