We’re all familiar with the rituals of remembrance. The poppies, the solemnity, the two minutes’ silence. The motions we go through to mark lives touched or ended by conflict. Minefield is more interested in what it really means to remember. This is a show about a war, but it’s also a show about the vicissitudes of memory and the trauma of things that cannot be forgotten. The things that, as one veteran puts it, keep popping into the head.
Conceived by Argentinian artist Lola Arias, Minefield brings together six veterans from opposing sides of the Falklands War: three Argentines, two Brits and one Gurkha. Together, they share memories, photos and artefacts – vestigial fragments of the 74-day conflict. On a stage dominated by a big, white, cut-away box, which acts as the blank canvas for their recollections, the six men piece together their experiences of the war with the aid of film projections, props and musical instruments. There’s a roughly chronological pattern to the performance, which traces events before, during and after the conflict, but these linear anecdotes are regularly interrupted by reflections on the rehearsal process or sudden, exhilarating bursts of song. Unlike in a typical television documentary – several of which have been made on this topic – there’s no smooth progress from one incident to the next. Arias’s approach acknowledges and allows friction.
So we get both sides, with their overlaps as well as their irresolvable differences. Some preconceptions – mostly those stoked by a sensationalist media and hate-fuelling leaders (only ever seen as cartoonish rubber masks) – are broken down. In one of the most powerful scenes, Argentinian veteran Marcelo Vallejo sits down opposite British counterpart David Jackson (now a counsellor who regularly works with vets) and talks about the anger that followed him around after the war. He used to think he would want to kill a British soldier if he ever came face to face with one again, yet here these two men are, talking. Elsewhere, though, we get a contradictory lecture on the history of the Falklands/Malvinas, in which it’s clear that some disagreements will never be erased.
What these six men share, more than anything else, are the scars of a war that inflicted lasting pain on both the victors and the defeated. How to handle this trauma on stage night after night is an ongoing question in Minefield. There’s a palpable sense of care, yet the various layers of memory, pain and representation remain troubling. These men are clearly not professional actors, and even after working on the show for many months their performances are far from polished, but the question still lingers as to how many of these distressing experiences have now become well-rehearsed recreations. It’s a question that the show itself addresses, contemplating the blurry line between traumatic recollection and well-told story, as well as making room for the blanks and absences that memory’s patchy record leaves unfilled.
Along with the fallibility of memory, the performance – and the performers – have to contend with the casualties of translation. The three British Army veterans speak no Spanish; the three Argentinean veterans speak no English. They face each other not only across the chasm of past enmity but also across a linguistic gulf, one that – even with translators – is difficult to bridge. This gap in communication and understanding remains clear throughout the show, there in the English and Spanish subtitles projected above the stage and in the looks of half-comprehension shared between these men who have so much in common and yet so much that separates them.
Then there’s the further unbridgeable chasm: that between the veterans on stage and those of us in the audience with no first-hand experience of war. “Have you ever fought in a war?” shouts Lou Armour during the final musical number. Well, no. And so, ultimately, I can’t understand. Theatre can do a lot to generate empathy and close the gaps between people, but it can’t recreate the embodied experience of conflict. Often, the use of “real people’s” testimony – whether in documentaries or on stage – implies privileged access to what “really happened”. Here, refreshingly, there’s no pretence that we are receiving some hidden, authentic truth which will allow us to truly comprehend what these men experienced. There’s an attempt at understanding, yes, but it’s an understanding that must always and inevitably fall short.
Minefield is on at York Theatre Royal until Saturday March 31st. Book tickets here.