When writing this piece, I laboured over where to possibly begin, from which angle I could possibly describe the magnificent play Campo Minado (Minefield).
Alas, there is no shortage of meaning. How do you fairly encapsulate a play that spans the gamut of international war, post-traumatic stress, the persistence of memory, the artifice of meaning? Each could be their own intensive dive, their respective story-line, and there would be no shortage of moments in the play to defend a choice. Yet, I knew that to choose one of these would be to deny what makes this play demand not one, but two standing ovations, erupting a mere half-step after the lights cut.
From the outset, the play embarks upon a juxtaposition of Argentine and British perspectives and histories. Director Lola Arias brings to the stage six veterans, in equal parts British and Argentine, of the Malvinas (Falklands) War “to explore what remains in their heads 34 years later.” Each segment is delineated somewhat chronologically, with a sort of chapter title, such as “Diary of War” or “Yesterday and Today” projected in English and Spanish onto a black backdrop. The veterans take turns controlling the old-school projector and in recounting their memories — an ode to the collaborative narrative.
This documentary theatre is a self-aware practice in memory. Lou Armour, one of the British veterans, recounts being surrounded by the enemy, while the other performers stand rigid, arms poised as if to hold rifles aimed at him. He was a prisoner-of-war. They recount returning to the islands and seeing the devastation preserved, minefield after minefield. And the sounds of war (screeching alarms, explosions, the beloved bar song of the time, the Human League’s “Don’t you want me”) that transform the accounts into tangible memories.
It is a practice in reversal. One of the Argentine protagonists has a Beatles cover band. They sang Argentina's anthem for the Malvinas war ("La Marcha de Las Malvinas") for the Queen on a visit to the United Kingdom. A combatant for the Argentines went looking through old magazines from the war his dad collected to see if he was still alive. He ended up discovering a photo of his co-performer, then a British soldier. “I never thought that looking for myself I was going to find him,” he confesses to the audience. The British veterans are performing now in what was once enemy territory. The Argentines did just the same a few years back when the show did a run at the Royal Court Theatre.
I believe the show is, most importantly though, a practice in empathy. Arias performs an act of blurring, as we are drawn into war. She brings us down from the barricades of ideology to a stage of just six men, to a Brit recounting holding a shot Argentine man in his arms and watching him die; we hear the story of one of the first encounters of the group, one veteran recounting how he once thought he'd kill a British soldier if he ever saw one again (footage played of a meeting they had years back, where you could watch the animosity dissolve into familiarity, affection) to them linking arms on stage, smiling.
In deep contrast to the world we live in, the 42-year old writer and documentary-maker doesn’t ask you to choose a side, a language, a country. She merely asks for whom we are fighting, as soldiers sign their drink bills with Margaret Thatcher. And for whom we hate — as survivors who once stared down the same uniforms from a loaded barrel help each other dive into old wounds.
The widening of our own narratives becomes inevitable. The intersections of memory and the contradictions too replace the dark spaces where once stood only pain, identity, post-war life. The audience dissociates from being Argentine or British to become patriots to Arias herself, and begins to participate in that which they are witnessing: that most longed for practice of empathy.
Be you Peronista or Macrista, you stood for the work. Which is to say perhaps when differences expand to become unbridgeable gaps of identity, anyone stands for the ambiguity that arises from a play with Margaret Thatcher and Leopoldo Galtieri in retroactive dialogue decades later.
In that extensive standing ovation I saw something I feel I have so easily missed in the wake of the political turmoil that surrounds us: the all-consuming nature of this anger. In what may be melodramatic for those not deeply touched by the narrative of war, an entire audience appeared to understand it, to be movingly familiar with the hatred and blinding loyalty required to fight.
For a performance relatively quiet and civil given its subject, the combatants pounded out a violent end. They blasted a visceral rock song, at full volume, with lights beating throughout the theatre and reverberating lyrics sung by Lou:
“Would you go to war? Would you send your sons and daughters to war? What would you fight for? The Queen? La patria? Oil? Have you ever killed anybody? Have you watched men die? Have you ever been ignored by a government that sends you to war? Have you ever watched your friend try to commit suicide? Have you held a dying man in your arms? Have you ever seen a man on fire? Have you watched a guy drown in an icy sea? And have you ever visited a dead friend’s grave with his mother? Have you? Have you? Have you?” They were, as Arias revealed in an interview with Walker Art Magazine, at first a response to her question: “What are the questions that you’re still struggling with?”
Campo Minado ends with one of the veterans for the British side, a Gurkha, reading a poem in his native Nepalese. Only this time, no translation was included.