Minefield, Royal Court London, theatre review: Unforgettably potent
Past and present intersect with extraordinary power and eloquence in this deeply affecting show. Argentinian theatre-maker Lola Arias has recruited six veterans of the 1982 Falklands War – three from each side – to devise a piece in which they pool their first-hand experiences of the conflict and the toll it has taken on their lives since then.
The minefield of the title is a metaphor for the treacherous terrain of memory. The idea is that recollections tend to become dulled and distorted in the re-telling, and that the collaborative process of excavation may bring to the surface the unexploded bombs. Arias uses a battery of techniques – live video, period footage, the eruption of live music (one of the Argentinians now has a Beatles tribute band) and Foley-like sound-effects – in an evening that deals with agonising material in a manner that is always honest and drily self-aware. It’s characteristic that one of the participants points out that the rehearsals for this piece took a little longer than the war itself.
That was over in 74 days, but for these former combatants there has never been “closure”. The most moving moments are those where the men, now in their fifties, look back at their younger selves. Lou Armour, then a Royal Marine and now a special needs teacher, watches footage of himself breaking down in tears during a 1987 documentary about the war as he recalled a wounded Argentinian dying in his arms and speaking his last words in English. His conflicted feelings were further complicated, he discloses here, by a sense of shame at this public display of emotion. It left him unable to go to regimental reunions because he felt he’d let the men down.
The puffed-up political rhetoric of Mrs Thatcher and General Galtieri (who appear courtesy of rubber Spitting Image-like masks) is discredited by the piercing personal testimonies. Many of the Argentinians were young ill-equipped conscripts with only the most basic training. Marcelo Vallejo, now a triathlon champion, revisits the islands and finds the remnants of the blanket with which he tried to ward off the harsh South Atlantic winter and handles as if it were a holy relic. He also reveals, in a session with David Jackson (who has since become a therapist), his post-war aversion to English films and music and the drink and drug addiction that drove him to a suicide attempt
The show doesn’t go in for phony redemptive uplift. It recognises the tensions that still exist. There’s a little flare-up of anger when the issue of sovereignty is raised towards the end. The emphasis is on co-existing despite differences and on candour. The men openly discuss the uncomfortable aspects they chose not to include (thereby contriving to slip them in). I wish that they had thought better of the aggressive final song. The music is mostly well-deployed (a thrashing rendition of the Beatles’ “Get Back”, say, in bitter, undercutting counterpoint to all the welcome-home flag-waving). But the last item, in confrontational punk mode, rounds on the civilian audience (“Have you ever seen a man on fire?”) with a divisiveness that feels false to the show’s spirit. Otherwise, an unforgettably potent exercise in remembrance.
To 11 June; 020 7565 5000