Trenches and air raids. Bombs and bayonets. The 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War was one of the world’s last traditional wars where troops met each other directly on the battlefield. But history seems to have mostly forgotten the two-week transatlantic skirmish, which claimed over 900 lives and wounded 2,400 more. British students barely register the conflict amid their country’s millennium of battles. Many Argentinians consider it as their Vietnam War — a bullish, if futile, confrontation that tore conscripted soldiers away from their families.
The six military veterans featured in the staged play Minefield come from opposing sides of the Falklands War between the United Kingdom and Argentina. In rehearsals on both sides of the Atlantic, the veterans excavated their wartime memories under the directorship of Lola Arias. And despite its traditional storytelling format, the production enlivens this little-known chapter of the Cold War with interventions of live video and music.
Minefield originally performed to a sold-out crowd at London’s Royal Court in 2016; three years later, it has arrived at New York University’s Skirball Center as part of the Public Theater’s 2019 Under the Radar festival of experimental performance. With support from the British Council and the Argentinian embassy in the UK, the production represents an effort to revitalize an examination of the Falklands War almost 37 years later.
The play begins by recognizing the commonalities between its actors. They all love rock music; in fact, all but one can play an instrument. Throughout the production, they perform music from The Beatles, which breaks through some of the grittier moments of the war. Arias makes a concerted effort to balance the veterans’ warfront reportage with tableaux of their everyday lives. Still, the conflict cannot help but puncture these moments. At one point, veteran David Jackson recalls his time on the HMS Sheffield with aplomb. He reenacts a dragged-up striptease for the audience, only to stop when his battleship is hit by enemy missiles. Twenty of his peers died on the boat.
Ruben Francisco Otero has a similar story from the Argentinian side of the war. He was stationed on the General Belgrano Cruiser in open seas when a Royal Navy submarine sunk it, although it was more than 200 miles outside Britain’s Maritime Exclusion Zone (MEZ) banning ships around the Falklands. For 41 hours, Otero was stranded in the middle of the South Atlantic.
Harrowing, too, are stories from Minefield’s Argentine contingency. Out-armed and overwhelmed, Argentina’s military struggled to prepare its troops for the onslaught of British soldiers, navy men, and marines. And although the war lasted only two weeks, the South American nation could not properly feed or clothe its defenders: many starved and others froze to death. Argentine officers even tortured scores of their own soldiers in the Falklands. Veterans Marcelo Vallejo and Gabriel Sagastume can recall Argentine officers forcing their colleagues to freeze barefoot for going afield in search of food. Other reports indicate that soldiers were severely beaten or forced to lie face-down in the island’s wet sand for offenses.
Five of the veterans in Minefield begin to play their song about the Falklands War with Lou Armour on the microphone. Providing yet another angle to the conflict is Sukrim Rai, a solider who joined the Brigade of Gurkhas, a battalion of Nepalese soldiers who have served the UK army for over 200 years. Known for their signature knife-wielding training, the Gurkhas became bogeymen for the Argentines; those onstage talk about how they perceived the Nepalese soldiers as savages who would eat them for breakfast. Rai debunks the rumors with grace, detailing how he always chose mercy rather than murder when he could during the war. In particular, he talks about capturing two Argentinian soldiers who had invaded the camp as prisoners instead of killing them. (Years later, he met one of the men. They exchanged gifts with one another.) Despite serving the British army, the Gurkhas would not receive UK citizenship until a 2004 rule change.
Minefield makes clear that any war, no matter how small, can ravage a generation of soldiers. The six veterans onstage are frank about their struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For Vallejo, it manifested as a multiyear cocaine addiction that ended with a months-long stay in a psychiatric ward. For Jackson, his experience with the disorder prompted him into the field of psychotherapy, where he works with other veterans and their families.
The play ends on a bittersweet note. The veterans discuss how they have lived since the Falklands War; how they have survived and struggled. The six men gather onstage for one last rock-and-roll performance. Lou Armour, a marine who now teaches children with special needs, takes center stage with a microphone in his hand. Percussions and bass begin as lights begin to flash an optically elusive image of the Falkland islands across the theater. “Have you ever been to war?” he shouts at the audience. “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?”
The volume climbs to a cacophony, and then silence. Rai reads from his wartime journal written in Nepali. Like the ineffable suffering experienced by soldiers in battle, his is a message that we are unlikely to comprehend.
Written and directed by Lola Arias; the play featured Lou Armour, David Jackson, Gabriel Sagastume, Ruben Otero, Sukrim Rai, Marcelo Vallejo; research and production by Sofia Medici and Luz Algranti; set design by Mariana Tirantte; music by Ulises Conti; lighting design and technical direction by David Seldes; video design by Martin Borini; sound engineering by Roberto Pellegrino and Ernesto Fara; costume design by Andrea Piffer; US tour produced by Mara Isaacs and Ronee Penoi.