Brighton Fringe 2018
Heather Bagnall writes, directs and also stars in this Tasty Monster Production at the Rialto alongside Luke Tudball. The Rialto’s lighting and techs support Bagnall’s simple set of crates. The sound design presents bleating sheep, birdsong, and something louder. Most striking is the period montage video for the early 1980s.
Playwright and theatre maker Heather Bagnall’s American. So what drew her to the material of Falkland, subtitled The War the World Forgot? A conflict started by a right-wing populist who secured a landslide on the back of a questionable war in the back of beyond. The slew of American awards for this play just possibly suggests a twitch on the thread. It’s a tripwire.
Dramatising this from a personal account, Bagnall directs and also stars in this Tasty Monster Production at the Rialto alongside Luke Tudball, who’s playing curmudgeon farmer and London emigrant Gideon, married to islander Helen. Bagnall plays Helen and with a donning of a duffle coat and hat, Fitz, Royal Marine Private Patrick Fitzgerald whom Gideon encounters near his grazing sheep, and one other brief role at the end.
The Rialto’s lighting and techs support Bagnall’s simple set of crates. The sound design presents bleating sheep, birdsong, and something louder. Most striking is the period montage video for the early 1980s and a few simple dates projected from April 25th to May 27th, 1982. The screen sports a wrinkle effect: time. A British audience ought to need these less, though the clue’s in the subtitle, even for the UK.
Or would be had we not been subjected to the magnificent Battlefield, Lola Arias’s extraordinary project to bring three each of British and Argentine veterans together and through their experiences and kindled friendship, forge an unforgettable vision of that conflict enacted by these veterans onstage. It toured to the Brighton Festival and twice played at the Royal Court.
Falkland here is that simpler and far slower thing, a play that unfolds in a more linear fashion. But unlike the narrative-driven elements of many short Fringe plays for instance this one exhales an amplitude, an air almost suggesting short-breathed days in chilly mountain tops where this work’s set. Monologues are unhurried and often quite long. The pace is never hurried. There’s little of the snappy returns and fractured interruptions to impel a dystopic twist or a self-impelled nightmare.
There’s little in the way of character conflict either, merely the rumple of events along the skin suddenly putting people – albeit briefly – at odds. Any tragic fundamentals arise in the quality of the protagonists’ response, not the response itself. This is an inner battle for Falkland.
Tudball’s staff-leaning shepherd, possibly suffering from Polio, encounters Fitz a young Belfast-born Marine whom he befriends. Fitz – on reconnaissance duties after the Argentinean invasion – has virtually no family: a father who deserted a mother who died when Fitz was ten. By then he’d saved his sister from a bomb another boy accidentally kicked himself to death with. Fitz gets scant credit for even that, breaking his sister’s arm as he successfully shielded her. He’s had no childhood and sharply tells Gideon at one point that being a ‘baby’ means nothing to a man who knows nothing but bombs and self-preservation from an early age. It’s the one sulky flashpoint to render their relationship awkward for a while.
Gideon’s experience of his mother’s wartime courage shapes him, like his father’s silence on his exploits. He’s married Helen partly because of her courage. Again we have a potential conflict but Bagnall acknowledges and refuses to make an easy plot point of it. Gideon’s reassurance of Helen at her most fearful is touching after we’ve heard their backstories. As is her following action.
In a warzone when you’re on one side, there often aren’t any real civilians. Not even the sheep. Conflicts in this play, and its outfall arise from the way an army has to ruthlessly canalize all it has including local knowledge, which in turn endangers the very people their military has come to protect.
Other elements of the Falklands conflict are brought home: the Belgrano’s sinking and the noises carried of men screaming. I’m not sure how close the Belgrano was, but our own ships were sunken near land; the terrible aural power of this part of the narrative is undiminished. Bagnall counterparts this visceral reportage with the microcosmic afflictions of a single sheep. Gideon’s named them after writer-journalists, Cyril Connolly, Keith Waterhouse, Larry Lamb (the Sun’s first editor as featured in Ink…), Gloria Steinem and a few dotted others. And there are other entities dotted about; hard and unforgiving.
The patient winning of Fitz’s almost frozen witness is Gideon’s reward. Because it’s a two-hander Bagnall can’t portray a meeting between her two characters. Her uncanny portrayal of a boyish soldier is matched by her downright tender Helen, the passionate matter-of-fact woman both fearful and resolved.
Tudball’s Gideon is a patient, mordantly honest man whose decency and almost Chekhovian ability to ruminate on cue suggest a strength to deal with conflicts internal and external. His accent’s dense weave of Bristol and islander with London underlay measures a peculiarly British defiance of urban values.
All this patient laying-bare builds to a tremendous climax; it leaves all three characters to narrate an aftermath, reflecting on the consequences – of their and others’ decisions. A fourth character (Bagnall again) makes a brief appearance.
Bagnall’s work seems almost a genre away from even the short plays, let alone shows, of the Fringe. Its tone if anything recalls Robert Holman’s apparently gentle triptych on the consequences of war, Making Noise Quietly, last seen at the Donmar in 2012.
There are other affinities. Closer to the Brighton Festival in 2015 and 2017 we saw Richard Nelson’s Apple Family Quartet and Gabriel Family Trilogy. Another is dramatist Annie Baker whose Flick and John stunned at the National in 2016 and 2018. Or Audrey Cefaly’s award-winning The Gulf too at the Tristan Bates in April. Though Bagnall doesn’t necessarily identify with such post-Mamet playwrights there’s a similar ‘slow burn’ (Bagnall’s term) naturalism, patiently layered, often happening in real time and even featuring for instance the preparation of a real meal, Wesker-style. It’s something we need more of.
Given its hushed raptness on occasion, I wonder if we need some of the noise. Pink Floyd’s The Wall (‘We don’t need no education’) plays us out, but I wonder if whistling wind and birdsong heard earlier mightn’t do the work more justice. It’s a Fringe moment tailing a more substantial play, which seems both fleeter and far longer than its fifty-two minutes.
Bagnall tautly conveys the querulous strong-minded Helen, and the numbed Fitz, already suffering from PTSD before he joined up. Bagnall uncurls him like a clenched fist. Tudball’s gnarled, kindly and fiercely questioning Gideon anchors a sense of place, even though portraying an emigrant shepherd: Tudball’s at once intimate, cross-grained and memorable.
The overall feel in Falkland is to stall sometimes purely narrative/plot-driven entities with snapped-off dialogue often featuring in contemporary playwrighting. It’s a work with much to tell us: of the unlooked-for consequences of a buried war. Of elective affinities and choosing to adopt the war-bereft, whatever condition they’re in. Of humanity stretching over thousands of miles in ragged flesh. Above all it shows how jagged displacements sometimes last forever. As does tenderness against the brunt of loss.