I’ve been on a tear lately against work that wants to pretend it is “real” when it is still staged drama. Shows like The Jungle and Nassim came across as so desperately dependent on the idea that we “believe” the reality they were presenting it made me more suspicious of their alleged “authenticity” and “re-creation.”
I had no such trouble with Lola Arias’s Minefield which makes no pretense about it being theater. Written and directed by Arias, much of the show is constructed before our eyes. With live video, overhead projections of archival texts, live sound effects, live music, costumes, archival film footage, and masks, there’s no question we’re seeing the tools and expression of theater.
But her subject matter—the war between the UK and Argentina over the islands known by one side as the Falkland Islands and the other as the Malvinas—is real and the performers are not actors but veterans. Men from both sides of the conflict speak in English or Spanish with subtitles in the other language. They talk about their lives before, during, and after the war. Well, they share part of their stories–there are aspects we cannot imagine and things they still struggle to express.
There is no aim to be complete. There cannot be a complete truth or reality when things are put together from memory, pain, trauma, and violence. We get a patchwork of perspectives, perceptions, and experiences (one even questions whether he can speak for a whole side or to anything but his own war experience; he also complains about the lack of discussion of British war dead in the show).
The performers are partners in building the piece. Scenes they worked on and discarded in rehearsals or topics they considered and rejected get mentioned. So we are acutely aware of the mechanics of the show. They work collaboratively to make each scene—they hand off costumes to each other, provide live sound effects for another telling a story, and film each other. They are only occasionally separated by nationality or “side.” More often than not they all contribute to someone on the other side’s story.
While there are scenes that are meant to discuss and address their hatred or fear of the “enemy,” I never felt a real tension with one another. They started making this show several years ago and have toured it quite a bit, so perhaps their growing comfort and familiarity with each other is a consequence. That becomes its own statement, really.
The piece is educational about the broad strokes of the conflict, the treatment of soldiers after the war, the British policies toward the Nepalese Gurkhas (who participated in this war and one is a member of the ensemble) and the ongoing dispute in the region. But it’s not about the war itself. It is more about their personal wars.
The veterans are open about their post-war addictions, struggles to connect, haunted memories, and anger. The central drama is between them and their memories. Some are compelled to revisit the places they fought, others have avoided it for years, but all still have ghosts they carry. They are frequently charming, pained, suffering, and vulnerable. Marcelo Vallejo seemed to get the most stage time of the Argentineans and his personal battles are the most revealing.
There are moments the men appear quite vivid, youthful, and alive in performance, and when live video cameras are turned on them for interviews or otherwise they suddenly look older and more worn-out. This is not commentary on their looks but the reminder of the two moments they hold at the same time on stage–their younger selves trapped in these nightmares of war and the older men that stand before us many years later still reliving that past. This is the core of the piece and yet while I understood it intellectually, it rarely broke through emotionally.
Arias has the men play instruments and through the course of the show they essentially come together as a rock band (though notably the Gurkha solider, Sukrim Rai, was not part of this final number). The symbolism of veterans of a war from opposite sides working together to make music and to shout their unspoken feelings was not lost on me. But while the piece received a rapturous reception in the UK, there was something in the frequently shifting voices, fragmentary approach, and dizzying speed that left me appreciative of the effort but distanced from the result. The show’s treatment of Sukrim sat strangely with me too. They make clear the poor treatment of the Gurkhas by the British but there were moments in the show that Sukrim felt isolated by the narrative too. He was somehow not on equal footing with the other veterans.
I understood the need to bear witness to these men and their pain. Trauma has no border or nationality. All these men have suffered in some way. The fact that under the Argentinean junta the Argentinean veterans were prohibited from speaking about their experiences and what they saw could only contribute to the many suicides that followed. So the act of speaking aloud here is political, personal, and healing. But in the end, the veterans got more out of this therapeutic experience than I did watching them.