They don’t make wars like the Falklands war any more. At least, that’s how the British veterans on stage in Minefield tell it: this was “our last old-fashioned war”, made not of drone strikes on that amorphous enemy, terror, but trenches and direct combat and seeing the whites of the other man’s eyes. It was a war crafted by hand and a war that had an end – except, of course, it didn’t end for those who fought in it. Men who returned to their families unable to tell the truth about what they’d experienced. Men who found that the only people they could relate to were other veterans, sometimes of much older wars. Men who spent the next decade or two fighting in a new way: to craft a different story, another identity, for themselves.
Men, men, men. I’ll be honest: nothing about Minefield appealed to me on the surface. I was alive when the Falklands war happened, but not old enough to read about it, and I haven’t bothered learning about it since. My received opinion is that it was a pointless conflict manipulated by Thatcher as a means to retaining power. Minefield doesn’t deny that interpretation of events, but it does complicate it by setting it alongside several others.
And that was what appealed: anticipation of the complexity that Minefield‘s writer/director, Lola Arias, can bring to political and participatory storytelling. Her show for LIFT 2014, El ano en que naci/The Year I Was Born, was extraordinary, whatever the Exeunt review says about it. Made with people born into the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, and reconstructing the lives of their parents, it travelled a spectrum from sympathy to resistance, military to guerilla, putting side-by-side those whose parents had been imprisoned, tortured or killed by the regime with those whose parents had enacted that violence in the course of duty. For some, telling this story was a detective job; for others, a betrayal for which they were yet to be forgiven. They lined themselves up according to privilege and victim status, fiercely contesting each position, defining themselves by what their parents had done, a never quite knowable past dripping into the present like poison.
The vicissitudes of memory, and the ways in which it can be warped by media narratives, shape El ano and Minefield alike: but where El ano was situated within conflict, Minefield – paradoxically, given that its subject is a war – emerges from startling unanimity. The only people who truly know what the people who fought in the Falklands have been through are other people who fought in the Falklands. When I interviewed Arias about this show, she marvelled at her performers’ ability to understand each other, despite the fact that the six men – three Argentinians, two from English regiments, one Gurkha – don’t share a language. But they do: they share a language of trauma, ingrained in their muscles and synapses. Because of that, an atmosphere of mutual support and understanding radiates from the stage.
What Arias does, brilliantly, is illuminate the points of connection without eliding any of the tensions. Every so often one of the performers will gripe about the production itself: I still think this song should have been included; at 98 days, the rehearsal period lasted long than the actual war; why aren’t we talking about the British dead? As in El ano, she uses music as a way of unifying. As it happens, Argentinian veteran Ruben Otero plays drums in a Beatles tribute act, so this isn’t imposed, it’s integral, but there’s something extraordinary about the way the group’s rendition of Get Back becomes a barked order to the British in the room, to get back, get out of Malvinas – a place the Argentinians have been indoctrinated since childhood to think of with pride and mourning, as a national cause.
I would love to see this show in Argentina, to feel how differently that tension burns. In London, there’s no getting away from the fact that, whichever side of the conflict they were on, these men fought and might have died for something very few people care about. It separates them from the rest of us in the room, a divide made stark in the final song, a furious, thrashing thing, with Lou Armour barking questions into the microphone: “Have you ever killed anyone? Have you ever seen anyone die? Have you seen your friends commit suicide? Have you been ignored by your government?”
It’s a moment when the specific becomes general: when the Falklands war becomes like any other war, an event that damages those who participate in it, excludes them in some way from normativity, and reframes the questions of why that normativity exists, and for whose benefit. But it’s also a moment in which the opposite happens: when we’re asked to recognise the specific humanity of the man in uniform. There’s no shying away from the less likeable aspects of these men: in particular the racism, some trained into them, some casual. Having that in the room, however, makes all the more poignant the declaration of gratitude, when one of them turns to another and says: “I’m alive today because of you.”
This is what Arias excels at: taking apparent paradox and teasing out the spectrum between its two poles. By doing this with people drawn from the general public – the men here now work as a painter and decorator, a psychologist, a teacher for children with special educational needs – you leave her work not admiring the skill of the theatre-maker but the strangeness and simplicity of humans themselves.
Minefield is on until 11th June at the Royal Court as part of LIFT 2016. Click here for more information.