It’s rare for me to give a standing ovation in a theatre. But on Wednesday I readily rose from my seat in the Royal Court Theatre to applaud six ex-soldiers from two sides of the same war. Despite the rawness of their memories, they had spent three months putting together a play to explore their experiences.
The Falklands War finished 34 years ago this month and all six veterans are now in their fifties. But we were left in no doubt of the deep impact that this brief but deadly episode had exercised in their lives.
The play – entitled Minefield – could have been dry and worthy, but the six combined humour, anger and grief as they used a mixture of storytelling, drama, film and puppetry to impressive effect. The project was conceived and directed by Lola Arias.
The comedy was present from the start. One of the Argentines, Ruben Otero, explained that he was in a Beatles tribute band and sings in English. “Do you dress up as the Beatles?” asked one of the others. “No, I wear a T-shirt saying ‘The Malvinas are Argentine’.”
The humour was accompanied by intense and moving portrayals of pain and mourning. Otero was a survivor of the General Belgrano, the ship sunk by British forces, which accounted for around half the Argentine casualties in the war. He narrated his experience with a passion that showed no sign of being an act. At a dramatic moment, the light switched to a British veteran, Lou Armour, who said, “We were pleased when we heard the General Belgrano had been sunk. We didn’t care that it was travelling away from the islands.”
Thankfully, there was no pretence that the process of making the play had been easy. None of them spoke each other’s language fluently (the Argentines’ contributions were in Spanish with English surtitles). Some had buried their memories of the war for years until applying to be in the play. Others had become obsessed by them. One had previously taken to drugs and alcoholism to deal with his trauma while another spoke of his experience of therapy.
The play was of course only a snapshot, only a window into the events and emotions that had shaped six men’s lives. Although we heard extracts of speeches by Thatcher and Galtieri, there was little said about the wider political context. There was certainly no sign of the peace activists in both Argentina and the UK who campaigned against the war.
This of course was the point. An insight into the personal impact of war can be so much more powerful than a dry description or academic analysis of it.
The six veterans included three from each side. All there Argentines had been young conscripts, though one had been discharged by the time the war began and had volunteered to re-join the army when it broke out. Two of the British veterans had joined up at sixteen, one of them finding a “family” in the Marines that he had not found at home. For me, this was a a reminder of how the armed forces take advantage of loneliness and a lack of community, using them as recruiting tools. The other British veteran, Sukrim Rai, was a Gurkha from Nepal.
Headlines from Argentine newspapers flashed up, describing the Gurkhas as “mercenary killers”. Argentine soldiers heard rumours that Gurkhas cut the ears from their victims and ate them. One Argentine veteran, Marcelo Vallejo, explained that for years after the war he had wanted to kill a Gurkha personally. Now he sat opposite Sukrim Rai on stage and said he would prefer to go for a beer with him.
Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to think that all was forgotten and forgiven. The veterans focused on experiences and emotions. None spoke explicitly about their views on the rightness or wrongness of the war, but it was clear that there were mixed views among both the British and Argentine veterans.
In one scene, the six shouted accusations at each other about the behaviour of each other’s forces. It was not clear to what extent they were acting, but the arguments made by at least some of them were undoubtedly heartfelt. I doubt I was the only audience member left with the thought that both British and Argentine authorities had behaved appallingly.
In my eyes, the one shortcoming of the show was its failure to explore the participants’ political views more explicitly. Given the bravery involved in the play’s production and performance, it would surely have been possible to explore the veterans’ opinions as part of the production.
But perhaps that’s easy for me to say. These veterans had already done something remarkable. This production is more a work of poetry than a piece of historical analysis, but it is no less powerful for that. Reconciliation is a messy business. Anyone who dares to treat an “enemy” as a human being is taking a step towards it.