In 1982, a voice-over tells us, "a tiny island went to war… but nobody noticed". A controversial claim maybe, but certainly – when it comes to Fringe theatre – the Falklands conflict remains relatively unexplored. Set mainly on a remote farm on these remote islands, Falkland: The War The World Forgot aims to show the impact of the war, both on local people and the servicemen sent to liberate them. It also places the events in historical context, stretching back to the Troubles in Northern Ireland and even the Blitz in London.
The strength of Heather Bagnall's script lies in its strong characterisation. Representing the islanders, we have Gideon – an ageing émigré from England, who tends to sheep and walks with a stick – and Helen, whose back-story I didn't quite follow but sounds like she comes from Ireland. It would be easy to underestimate these seeming rural pensioners, but as we learn soon enough, they possess hidden steel. Courage in all its forms is a theme of the script, and one particularly effective scene sees Gideon bolster a reluctant Helen with reminders of involuntary heroism long ago.
On the British side, we have Fitz, a Royal Marine from Northern Ireland digging trenches on Gideon's farm. In a play which emphasises nationality and sovereignty, it's bold to include a character from Northern Ireland – but it opens the way to discussion of the Troubles, and the way that Fitz too grew up with deadly conflict around him. The script is driven by the developing trust between Fitz and Gideon; both are reserved and sometimes prickly, but perhaps they share more than they initially know.
On the one hand, it feels a waste to go to the other side of the world to hear stories from Belfast and London, but on the other hand it does emphasise the endless cycle of human conflict. By escaping war-torn Europe 35 years before, Gideon and Helen have put themselves right at the heart of a new and unexpected conflagration – for all that, on their isolated farm some distance from Port Stanley, the battle takes some time to reach them.
There's an interesting story to tell here, about islanders living their lives while war plays out around them, and a few thoughtful details – like the completely everyday way Helen goes to the shop – reinforce the impression of ordinary people caught up in life-shattering events. But there's a flip side to that: until the climactic final scenes, I never felt much fear or peril, or shared the shock and anxiety the Argentine invasion must have caused. In one scene, for example, Fitz and Gideon find a sheep that's been killed by a land-mine – then have an extended discussion about it while tramping back and forth on the stage, untroubled by the fact they appear to be in a minefield.
And there are a few too many other details that intuitively don't ring true. Would the Marines really send a green young recruit to dig a trench system completely on his own? In desperate times perhaps they would, but if that's the explanation then I need to hear it. Or there's the moment when the Belgrano is torpedoed, and Fitz claims to hear the screams – even though, notoriously, the sinking happened in international waters 200 miles away. I understand that this is artistic licence, but if they're willing to take such an obvious liberty, can I trust the quieter tales of real-life courage which follow later on?
Falkland is an interesting play, and its general themes of war and politics will play well at Fringes everywhere. As a reminder of a "war the world forgot, though", I felt it lacked something – an understanding of why this place is unique, or an insight into what you feel if you were born and bred on the islands. There are stories here I do remember from the eighties… and I'd genuinely like to learn more.