The 30th anniversary of the Malvinas/Falklands War has spawned a number of cultural events -books, films, exhibitions- which seek to analyse and to make sense of the motives behind the war. At a time when the United Kingdom is being governed by the Tories after a 13-year hiatus, the figure of former British Primer Minister Margaret Thatcher has been put on the spotlight once more.
The play ‘Hundan el Belgrano’, which opens tonight, is a satirical take on the behind-the-scenes of the war and of one of its most crucial and tragic moments, the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano. The play is based on ‘Sink the Belgrano!’ by British writer Steven Berkoff. It revolves mainly around the character of Thatcher, called Maggot Scratcher in the original and renamed Amargas Cachas for the Argentine version (something like ‘bitter bum cheeks’).
The play has only been performed once before, in London in 1986, to mixed reviews. Unsurprisingly, since 1986 was only four years after the war and Thatcher was still the triumphant primer minister. About the play, the author has stated that “…this kind of theatre is so powerful, so visceral, that it forces audiences to react: either they feel like fleeing the building or they are suddenly convinced that it is the best thing they have ever seen”. That is a fair description.
In the current adaptation by director Claudia Marocchi, the stage is empty but for a couple of big wooden modules that get shifted around between scenes. Lighting and music effects are powerful and make up for the bare scenography. There is a guitar player on stage at all times and every now and then the characters break into song.
The wardrobe is definitely odd: all the male characters, save for the Argentine president, wear high heels. Some even wear patent leather, S&M-style knee-high boots. The dialogue, in verse, is crude but funny at the same time.
Just like Berkoff said, the spectators find themselves wondering what on earth is this bizarre display they are witnessing, only to forget about their reservations the moment the next funny line comes along (and they abound). The eccentric and hilarious interactions between Amargas Cachas and her sidekicks are interrupted by scenes of the submarines making their way south, and trying to make sense of their situation. The brief solemnity is in turn interrupted by bouts of camp Village People-style dancing and the appearance of the Admiral in his tight, silver hot pants.
Whilst bizarre and laugh-out-loud funny, the play is deeply political. It brings to the forefront the domestic political landscape of the UK
in 1982 -the unemployment, the strikes, the threat of the Labour party- giving a context to the decision to fight back against Argentina. Amargas Cachas’ question “Where are the Falklands?”, repeated a couple of times at the beginning of the play, reinforces the point that this war was not about the islands or the islanders. In that respect, the main message of ‘Hundan el Belgrano’ is faithful to the maxim of Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz, who famously said that “war is merely a continuation of politics by other means”.
The actors do a great job in their physically demanding roles, especially the protagonists Monina Bonelli (Amargas Cachas) and Gastón Rodríguez (Alcahuete/Admiral). The translator, Rafael Spregelburd, deserves a special mention for adapting the language of the play to an Argentine slang-heavy, curse-heavy dialogue that is funny and doesn’t sound contrived.
Whilst the play is a satire, it never forgets that it’s dealing with a serious historical event. Towards the end, as the moment when the sinking of the Belgrano approaches and the message about the hundreds of lives lost hits home, the comically bizarre reveals itself tragically grotesque. The burlesque-style music number at the end of the play is not enough to shake the viewer out of a reflective mood. Because despite the glitz, war is always a serious matter.