Not Another Play About War

Bringing real life British and Argentine veterans of the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War to the stages of London and Brighton, Lola Arias is soon to create a ground-breaking theatrical experience. Latinolife talks exclusively to this talented young Argentine theatre director about bringing such a controversial subject to the UK.
Sofia Mercader

There could be many ways to start a play about the notorious war between Argentina and Britain, which began with Argentina’s invasion of the British-owned island 186 miles off the Argentine coast. To start with, the political context in both countries was highly controversial. Argentina’s governing dictatorship was in its last desperate throes of power, having ‘disappeared 30,000 people and facing internal and international clamour. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher’s popularity was at an all time low, facing a backlash on the radical social transformations she was proposing. War was a convenient distraction for both governments.

And yet, Arias has chosen not to explore the reasons but to focus on the stories of the war’s immediate victims; soldiers from both sides who shared the same battlefield 34 years ago, facing death, freezing climates, and (on the Argentine side atleast) starvation during 72 days.

On stage, these former soldiers - Lou Armour, David Jackson, Rubén Otero, Sukrim Rai, Gabriel Sagastume and Marcelo Vallejo - share their experiences and memories of the war and the ways in which they have dealt with that memory ever since. Composed with elements from real personal experiencesand narrations, Arias uses the same documentary-style that she employed in her previous acclaimed play My life after.

Why did you decide to write a play on such a controversial issue?

War was present in my life since childhood. My generation grew up singing the Malvinas anthem at school, learning with maps in which the Malvinas were considered part of Argentina, remembering the Malvinas’ dead every 02 April. In Argentina, that nationalistic fervour is transmitted to kids since primary school. It is a powerful discourse, but it does not explain exactly what happened at war or the consequences of war for those who lived it. This play made me rethink the relationship I had established with Malvinas. The play encourages us to rethink the ways in which that relationship was constructed over the years. For me, one of the most interesting things about the project was to realize how little we know about it. By interviewing Argentine and British war veterans I reassessed the image I had of war.

Your trademark style combines elements of reality with a written script. If the play explores the personal lives of the veterans, does the text start with the auditions?

Yes, totally. In this kind of documentary project auditions are one of the most important moments. It is also the way in which I carry out the research, by having several voices about a same story. I interviewed around 40 Argentine veterans in Buenos Aires and over 20 British veterans in the UK. Thanks to those interviews I collected stories, experiences and viewpoints about the war. I chose three British and three Argentines and I worked first with the Argentines, separately from the British. I conducted workshops to get to know them and talk to them, I tried to look into their stories. Then we had a period of rehearsals in Argentina. So the text is written as the works develops, it is very much based on what is told by the veterans, on the interviews, exercises and scenes we compose during the rehearsals. It is based in their own improvisations, the reformulation of their stories, the reconstruction of past moments.

You stated that your knowledge of war changed as you got to know the veterans more. Can you tell us more about that change?

When you start working on war stories you realize that there is no single war narration, there is no single kind of veteran either. War veterans became school keepers, opera singers, lawyers, psychologists, etc. You think you know what a war veteran is, but you actually have no idea. You realize you have a fixed and childish image of the veteran as an unemployed person, perhaps hard up, even begging for money. That was of course the case of many of them after war in Argentina; they had no pension, no psychological help, no recognition at all. But a veteran can also be a psychiatrist that works at the hospital.

Amongst the civilian veterans there is a wide variety of people. You meet people like Marcelo Vallejo (one of the play’s protagonists), who went to Malvinas when he was 18. He only did primary school, had no good education, he was a worker. When he returned from the Islands he lost his job, but later became a worker at Ford factory. In spite of this, he still suffered terrible consequences from the war days and in one occasion was hospitalized for substance abuse and later on he tried to kill himself. Nowadays he is a triathlete, an ironman, he runs, swims and cycles. You cannot have a dimension of that life experience until you meet someone in his late fifties who talks about War as if it was yesterday. That makes you think about the footprints those experiences leave on people. It also makes you wonder ‘Why do we think that war can be a solution for the problems in this world?’

I also saw that with the British veterans. I had the prejudice that as military professionals, the British had a less intense experience of the Falklands/Malvinas War and this is not true at all. For them, it was a very defining experience as well. Lou Armour (another protagonist in the play) left the army when he was 35. 20 years later he started a career as a teacher for children with learning disabilities. However, he still defines himself as a Royal Marine, for him his whole life will be defined by his army career and by the Falklands/Malvinas War in particular. People still recall him for the testimonies he gave about the war in different documentaries and books.

Do you find differences between the Argentines and the British?

In the play, I’m working with three Argentine conscripts; so they were not military professionals. Therefore, they had a very different experience from those who were professionally trained. Although you are never prepared to go to war, to see your friends die, shoot and kill people. I don’t know if you can prepare someone for that. The experience of going to war – that some people call ‘traumatic’- leaves a different mark on each person. So none of the actors are stereotypical figures, they account for their own experiences, each one is a unique and singular individual. My idea is not to represent stereotypes but rather the opposite. I try to show who the veteran really is, apart from being a guy in a green outfit.

What is it like to work with actors that are not familiar with acting?

It is always very interesting to see how somebody becomes an actor. They become conscious of what they show and what other people see in them. They live a sort of unfolding, for which they see themselves from the outside. I think that is a very interesting process when they turn what they lived into text. They start seeing their lives as the lives of others, they become aware of what we see when we see them, they take certain distance from their own narration and biography.

Personally, I’m very interested in this process over fiction. I’m interested in what happens when people foreign from the artistic world, get in touch with it. Some of them have no interest in art, but you can see how art does great things with them and how they do great things with art.

Do you have particular expectations about the reception of the play in Britain?

I never have too many expectations about the success of my plays. I mainly expect people to be interested in what is going on in the performance, I would like them to feel connected or learn something. I describe this kind of projects as time machines. You get into this machine with people in their late fifties who return to their pasts and think about what they were or lived when in their early twenties. I hope that, whether in Argentina or in the UK, audiences experience this kind of exercise. I expect them to travel in time and think about their own lives 34 before. ‘What did I know about war? Did I also celebrate when the soldiers returned? What did I think it was going on?’ That is my expectation, that the audience gets into the time machine with the protagonists and reflect on their own lives and the history of the country in which they are.

MINEFIELD runs at the Brighton Corn Dome Exchange 28 - 29 May and at the Royal Court Theatre 02 - 11 June.

For secial £10 offer click here and use the promotional code MINEFIELD10

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