Men at Play

in Minefield directed by Lola Arias & made/performed by Lou Armour, David Jackson, Ruben Otero, Sukrim Rai, Gabriel Sagastume & Marcello Vallejo at the Royal Court Theatre (Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, 2-11.11.2017)

An Argentine veteran of the Falklands/Malvinas war is telling the audience a story. It is a personal story, taken from his direct experiences of the 1982 conflict. As he explains, simultaneously another performer (also a veteran) uses plastic toy soldiers to reenact the narration. This is filmed by an onstage camera and projected live onto a screen hanging at the back of the stage. The veteran tells us that a group of troops from his regiment escaped one night to try to steal food from a nearby house. We watch the plastic toy soldiers demonstrate the journey, discover that the house was abandoned and load up a nearby boat with food. Suddenly, says the narrator, there was an explosion: someone had stood on a landmine on their return. All were killed. The figurines are in disarray. The narrator describes going to gather their limbs on his one and only woollen blanket. With tiny blankets, the toy soldiers show us this moment. “It was the only blanket I had, and I continued to sleep under it until the end of the war”, says the veteran.

Minefield is an awe-inspiring piece of documentary theatre made by six veterans of the Falklands/Malvinas war, directed by Lola Arias. It weaves a tapestry of both personal and historical narratives, as performed by soldiers directly involved, to create both a broad and intimate picture of the conflict between Britain and Argentina. Yet one of the things that most moved me in witnessing this production was simply watching the veterans (now all in their 50s) play onstage. For me, the themes of men and play ran deeply through Minefield.

Going to the theatre as an audience member, by definition we expect to see the performers onstage engage in (a) play – bring stories to life. Normally we watch trained actors. Not in Minefield. Here we see veterans from both sides of a war, collaborate to reenact their memories. Whether capturing moments of direct conflict itself, or showing us glimpses of army training, entertainment and other events that happened peripherally – in Minefield the performers play-out scenes inspired by their own real lives. For me, there was something about watching the men collaborate to reenact their stories – whether running around like soldiers, miming army poses, using a walking stick for a gun, or using toy soldiers as described above – that was reminiscent of childhood. Minefield thus overlaps the worlds of war, theatre and play; of fighting men, actors and playing boys.

In so doing, Minefield indirectly poses many questions. It draws into consideration boy-/manhood and the impact of war on both. It asks: what is it that turns playing boys into fighting men? And what is it that has turned these ex-soldiers into players on a stage? Whilst both political leaders Margaret Thatcher and Leopoldo Galtieri alike are parodied in Minefield, the piece furthermore points to the game-playing and inherent theatricality of war itself… the narratives, the costumes, the rhetoric and the characterisation of heroes versus villains. Yet beneath all the theatrics are human beings caught up in grand narratives. Victims to its real-life traumatic effects.

There is a moment when one of the British veterans talks about his recent work as a support assistant for children with learning disabilities. He mentions one little boy in particular, who he says experienced sexual abuse. The veteran describes watching him in the playground, and how the only way the boy could engage with the others was to play dead. All he did at playtime was play dead. This anecdote is left hanging in the air without direct explanation… yet somehow it speaks volumes. The inability to play in the face of profound trauma mirrors the mental collapse so many of the veterans experienced after war, to the point where they struggled to engage with the people around them. The story speaks to the profound isolation and loneliness of dealing with trauma.

However, perhaps partially through coming together to create the performance itself, these men have rediscovered a way to connect, process and play again. Minefield radiates a sense of healing for those involved. By meeting ‘the enemy’ head-on and sharing personal stories, both British and Argentine veterans alike form a collective, an ensemble. On reflection, there was a cyclical sense to their narratives: from playing boys to fighting men, through trauma and back out the other side, to playing performers on a stage. Live music also features heavily in the piece, and through playing instruments/singing – sometimes alone; other times together – music provides an outlet for so much of the emotion and grief that remains unspoken in the piece. Playing music, optimistically, serves as a major point of connection and sharing.

The deep humanity on display in Minefield left me with a sense of the futility of war. The Argentine and British veterans are so very similar to one another, united in their painful experiences of the Falklands/Malvinas conflict. Equally sensitive and human. Far more alike than different. From the darkness of war the veterans unite to become a shining beacon of shared humanity and ultimately, hope.

One Reply to “Men at Play”

  1. Hi Grace,
    I’d just like to tell you how much I enjoyed reading your article.
    I tend to ignore reviews of the play because I have no interest in reading them. I do, however, have an interest in academic and theoretical papers about it. Most of those papers make use of the play to theorise about other things such as e.g. the nature of conflict, cultures of masculinity, the art of public spectacle, etc.
    Your article is by far the most perceptive I have read to date and you have captured something heart-felt. What do I mean? At one level it suggests that your analysis speaks to me personally, intellectually, creatively and emotionally, but that doesn’t really describe it’s effect or affect at all.
    I think the only way to explain how I feel about your observations is to say that I would find it impossible to discuss with others what I feel as I read it. And that is a good thing! because unlike the academic texts described above, your words have touched my heart, that difficult-to-express place inscribed with traces of the boy I once was and the man I hope to be.
    In the near future I hope to write a piece on the in situ performance of ‘remembering’ – I shall not be talking about my own situated acts of remembering but Gabriel’s – and I will be delighted to reference ‘Men at Play’ for its honesty and astute observations.
    Kind regards and best wishes for the future.

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