Nothing shores up a foundering head of state’s popularity among the electorate like a quick war, decisively won. The British response to Argentina’s 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands looks from three decades on something like what the Bush Administration promised the seven-plus-year-old war in Iraq would be: The Falklands War lasted only 74 days, and the U.K.’s victory helped propel the Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to big electoral gains the following year.
Sink the Belgrano!, a 1986 play by British actor and director Steven Berkoff, is not a cool-headed history of the conflict or anything close. It’s an astringent piece of agitprop condemning what Berkoff sees as a violent overreaction by Thatcher — called “Maggot Scratcher” here, in the plainest example of his appropriation of sing-songy, infantile language — whom the playwright argues rebuffed all attempts at diplomacy, knowing her political aims would be better served by bloodshed. The title refers to an episode a month after the Argentine invasion, wherein the British nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror fired upon and destroyed the vessel ARA General Belgrano, killing 323 crewmen.
Whether this was a justifiable use of military force remains controversial, but there’s no question where Berkoff stands on the issue. (The play followed hard on the heels of his stint in Hollywood, playing villains in Reagan-era blockbusters Octopussy, Beverly Hills Cop and even Rambo: First Blood, Part II — jobs Berkoff says he took to bankroll his passion projects for the stage.) If you accept as truthful the sequence of events as he presents them here, you can understand his outrage, but that singularity of emotional pitch gives the show a leaden quality and absence of suspense that the sharpest satire evades.
Last year’s British film In the Loop, which similarly chronicled the manufacture of a phony case for war and was partly shot here in DC, is a fine example of how this sort of material works better when it’s light on its feet. Even though Belgrano! is based on a historical event, an outcome other than the one we know ought at least to feel like a fleeting possibility. It never does.
Even if the script is problematic, director Robert McNamara’s energetic revival of Belgrano! approaches it in an inventive way, matching Berkoff’s irreverent language with an equally baroque, outsized presentation. He’s made a canny decision in casting Nanna Ingvarsson as the ruthless P.M. Scratcher — if you’re going to present a figure as utterly devoid of humanity, at least it’s fun to watch her strut around beating up on her two toadies, Pimp (John Geoffrion) and Nit (Michael Miyazaki) while lamenting of President Reagan (“Cowboy Joe” here), “great chaps always marry such whores.”
The four actors who play the crew of the Conqueror are all strong in their stylized roles, giving us a sense of their individual awakening as to what it will mean to have blood on their hands. James Bigbee Garver’s sound design is particularly effective, creating a sense of gathering menace from the roar of Harrier jet engines powering up for takeoff.
McNamara set himself the task of accurately recreating Berkoff’s disgust at what he saw as a cynical and senseless taking of life. Mission accomplished.
Sink the Belgrao! is at the H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE, through Sept. 12. Performance time is approximately 85 minutes without an intermission.
A version of this review appeared in The Examiner.