Elizabeth Sakellaridou*

Abstract: Revisiting the pointless Falklands war for the stage, over three decades after it took place, was a very timely endeavor for the Argentinean director Lola Arias. By comparison to the larger and more devastating wars of our time, the Falklands conflict was a minor incident in international military history. However, it had a high toll for both nations involvedand all for a futile, absurd cause. By recruiting three Argentinean and three British veterans who actually fought in this war, Arias lets a polyphony of remembered experiences from the conflict rewrite the story from the point of view of individuals who actually confronted each other in the battlefield and had to reconsider afterwards their position vis-à-vis their own nation and government and the rest of humanity. The rehearsal period (longer than the actual duration of the war) and the performance itself brought up a real “minefield” of traumatic memories and repressed emotions which kept reeling and reformulating the stories shared among the veterans and narrated to the audience. Arias combined authenticity with psychoanalytic techniques, devised theatre with personal narrative, digital technology with live music and she trained her recruited war veterans enough to change crude documentary drama into participatory theatre. The paper will make a twofold analysis of the production, on the one hand focusing on the idea of nationhood and identity and on the other hand examining the efficacy of the specific form of verbatim theatre aesthetic employed.

Keywords: War, trauma, identity, performance, affect, experiential theatre, evental theatre

The twenty-first century has seen a spectacular rise of nationalist movements in several European countries which have strongly opposed the earlier liberal ideologies of globalization and transnationalism that dominated during the last decade of the twentieth century. Social and political theory as much as serious journalism have been fast in taking up this neo-nationalist outburst for an in-depth investigation of its causes in and effects upon the contemporary social tissue and the international political scene. Among other relevant studies the collective volume Neo-Nationalism in Europe and Beyond (2006) makes a multifaceted incision into the methods and strategies of neo-national political parties, marks their weaknesses and watches with scepticism their claim to all-powerfulness. The overall attitude of the book is towards a “wait-and-see” situation which also hints to a hope for the eventual re-establishment of a new global order.

However, neo-nationalism is currently making a firmer grip over Western politics after Brexit, Trump’e election to the U.S. presidency and the recent Catalan separatist movement from Spain. As a consequence, political analysts now make gloomier prognostics concerning the outcome of this fierce contestation between far-right and liberal democratic forces. Two random titles from the plethora of recent political articles in the international press, “Brexit: Europe’s New Nationalism Is Here to Stay” (Toubeau 2016) and “How Neo-Nationalism Went Global” (Postel-Vinay 2017), are fairly indicative of the heightening pessimism in the current political speculation.

In the context of this crucial struggle between major systems of world governance and the concomitant confusion of individual ideologies and personal allegiances, the symbolic significance of the Argentinian theatre director Lola Arias’s rekindling of the Falklands crisis, which twice in history brought into war conflict the British and the Spanish worlds for an immaterial cause, is a major theatrical endeavor. As Nadine Holdsworth maintains, in Theatre and Nation (2010), “theatre provides a site where the nation can be put under the microscope” (7). Arias actually put two nations under her theatre microscope—Britain and Argentina—choosing the social anthropologist’s point of view. Her show, under the double title Minefield/Campo Minado, was a production for the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) and was staged at the Royal Court Theatre in June 2016. It also went on tour, including the Brighton Festival (in May 2016) and the Athens festival (July 2016). I saw the production at the Royal Court.


Minefield/Campo Minado trailer

Measured by the standards of international war history, the Falklands conflict of 1982 can be discarded as a minor military incident, futile both in conception and in outcome. On the part of the British Government, it was a pointless and absurd show-off of national pride which immediately evaporated into oblivion, whereas, in Argentina, it left a more lasting scar of national humiliation. It is very much to the point to mention here Samuel Johnson’s “Thoughts on the Late Transaction Respecting Falkland’s Islands” (1771) and recall his despising tone for the futile expedition and the ensuing triumphal, but empty, nationalism of the British for the re-acquisition of the Falklands islands from the Spaniards, in the late eighteenth century. He calls that first conflict “a contention for a few spots of earth, which, in the deserts of the ocean, had almost escaped human notice, and which, if they had not happened to make a seamark, had, perhaps, never had a name!” (1913: 34). Lola Arias put aside state politics and focused instead on the individual stories of soldiers who fought in the war on either side and who had, after the apocalyptic experience of the battlefield, to reintegrate to normal social life and to redefine the idea of nationhood and identity.

Arias recruited six war veterans, three from each side of the conflict, and interviewed them. Then, she proceeded to write a draft performance text, which she, subsequently, edited with them, collectively, in order to decide which scenes to include and which to discard. The collaborative process was long and flexible, leaving open possibilities for reshaping and editing the material further during rehearsal. It is remarkable that the over-three-months period of preparation (98 days) was actually longer than the war itself (which lasted only for 74 days). This means that the three British and the three Argentinian men worked closely together for quite enough time to approach each other across culture, race and nation, and reconsider personal matters and received ideas both about themselves and the other. Stories crossed, and repressed feelings of horror, fear, anger and frustration came out to a cathartic effect. As Arias remarked in an interview to Lyn Gardner, although she treated memory as a minefield of emotions ready to explode, she was struck by “how little conflict . . . emerged.” In another interview to Maddy Costa, she similarly confirmed “her performers’ ability to understand each other.” Obviously, the common language of war and postwar trauma was a strong link among them. As the director of the piece, Arias explained to her collaborators that the aim of the project was “not writing a history book but dealing in personal memory” (Gardner). That was her basic guideline both for the selection of the scenes to be presented on stage and for the performance mode to be adopted by the veterans/players. Her instruction to them for acting was: “You are representing yourself on stage, not your country or your battalion” (Gardner).

The six veterans/players on stage. Photo: courtesy of Lola Arias

This rough outline of Arias’s objectives and working method makes it quite clear, I think, to what kind of theatre her endeavor belongs. Minefield is in essence a typical documentary, experiential theatre event, where “experts of the everyday” (in this case, veterans from the Falklands conflict) are called upon to play out their own stories to the audience. My oblique reference here to the Rimini Protokoll’s well-known performance method of employing common people on stage as performers of their own microhistories[1] is not a random comparison at all, because Arias had collaborated with the pioneer (in this type of theatre) German group in the past, on an earlier project called Airport Kids.[2] As Andy Lavender points out, in verbatim theatre “the authorizing source is the individual’s voice prior to the organizing work of the director’s plan” (Lavender 36). He also succinctly observes that “the speaking voice [when] staged [is] thrown into relief” (43, emphasis added). This is an important phenomenological statement, which underlines the affective power of the re-enactment of personal experience for the performing individuals themselves (in this case, the war veterans). Transferred to the stage, the logos of the personal narrative passes from performativity to performance as it gains corporeality and brings forth all the affective capacities of the body—a potential that Brian Massumi aptly termed “incorporeality” (2002: 21, emphasis added).

Arias’s insistence on prolonging the rehearsal period had a double effect: on the one hand, it helped build positive personal relationships between former rivals in war, and on the other, it refined the performance for the audience, offering them a more sophisticated theatrical experience than the usual, rather crude, aesthetic of experiential theatre, where professional actors have been done away with. Without sacrificing authenticity, either on the level of the stories told or on that of the physical presence of the “experts of the everyday” (the interviewees), Arias’s performance skillfully blurred the dividing line between factuality and fictionality, creating a liminal space of living theatre for all parties involved. The title of one recent article on Minefield calls the edited stories that form the backbone of the show “autofictions of postwar” (Blejmar, emphasis added)—a definition that places the narrative basis of the performance in the hybrid position between biography and fiction. As for the liminality of the performance method itself, Arias’s exhortation to her real life experts “you are representing yourselves” (Gardner) similarly placed them in the precarious position between presentation and representation, which proved fascinating for both the non-actor players and the spect/actors in the house.

Recontextualizing the words of Erika Fischer-Lichte, the case of Minefield was a true “situation of liminality that transform[ed] the participants of the performance” (2008: 163). Or—to borrow from Andy Lavender’s more recent theorization—it was a pure case of a “mise-en-événement” (2016: 97).  It is precisely this slippery tension between a simultaneous sense of reality and unreality in the production of Minefield that generated an affective response to the veterans, who re-enacted their traumatic memories from the past and reinvented their present social connections in interaction with their former enemies. Equally strong was the affective result on the spectators, who participated in this double sensation of psychic torment and euphoric excitement. Thus, Arias’s performance passed to the third level of evental theatre, according to Lavender’s three-partite categorization, moving from a “mise-en-événement” to a “mise-en-sensibilité” (97).[3]

Beyond theorization, however, some more specific evidence is required regarding how Arias grounded her individual narratives in the soldiers’ diverse war memories and also in material from their postwar life experiences. The six intersecting narratives are given in their authentic language of origin, Spanish and English (with subtitles in the other language accordingly), and they are completely personalized, including the real names and racial identities of the six people involved (for example, one ex-British soldier was a Nepalese Gurkha fighter). Their current professions were also specified: a special needs teacher, a therapist, a painter and decorator, a triathlon champion, a drummer and a criminal prosecutor.

The Nepalese Gurkha fighter on stage. Photo: courtesy of Lola Arias

Apart from all this rather innocuous information, Arias probes into a more private, confidential field—one that includes postwar depression syndrome, alcoholism and drug abuse, suicidal tendency, shame for exhibiting emotion in public, secret hatred for the opponent’s culture, resentment against state indifference and emotional confusion about national and social belonging. Highlights from this collective excavation of trauma, emerged, under Arias’s inspired direction, as enacted and/or narrated episodes in the performance. One particularly moving scene was when an Argentinian veteran had an on-stage psychoanalytic session with a co-player, a British ex-soldier, who had now become a professional therapist. Another equally potent stage incident was when a veteran from one side expressed his gratitude to an ex-enemy who saved his life, with the moving words “I’m alive because of you” (Costa). Both are scenes of reconciliation across the line of national conflict, loaded with cathartic empathy on and across the stage.

The psychoanalytic session. Photo: courtesy of Lola Arias

One more strong cross-cultural issue drawn from the actual histories of the non-actor performers was brought to the fore and formed an integral part of the performance:  That was music, which has always been an important element in Arias’s technical baggage. In the case of Minefield, music, in particular that of the Beatles, became an even more organic component of the show since one of the Argentinian veterans was, in his postwar life, a drummer in a Beatles tribute band. Through this real-life connection and toward the end of the show, the enthusiastic, almost demoniac live-band playing (by the performers) of the Beatles’ song Get Back was not received as a forced-in paradox, even though its title and lyrics, in the specific context of Arias’ production, hid a potential hint to the British to retire from the contested territory of the Falklands/Malvinas. As one reviewer from the British Press sensitively remarked, it would be interesting to speculate on the Argentinian reception of the performance (Costa).

The drummer. Photo: courtesy of Lola Arias
The veterans’ band playing: Photo: courtesy of Lola Arias

However, despite its centrality, music was not the only strong technical aspect of the show. In order to not only punctuate, but also unify the narrative, Arias also used a number of other techniques, such as foley sound and visual effects, video and live video projected in real time, images skillfully sliding from wall to floor,[4] a toy battle scene, cartoonish representations of Margaret Thatcher and General Galtieri[5] and other, more conventional, Brechtian items of scenery and props. Through a diverse but well-balanced use of technology, Arias achieved a high aesthetic result, which efficiently supported the political aim of the show to bring centre-stage the silenced suffering of war veterans and question, once again, the irresponsibility of governments in constructing dividing, even hateful ideologies against the needs and interests of humans themselves.[6]

Projected image on walls and floor: Photo: courtesy of Lola Arias

As a devoted theatre-goer, and having seen several performances of the so-called “Giessen School” of applied theatre, such as the Rimini Protokoll and the She She Pop,[7] I would like to suggest that, by comparison, the affective power of Arias’s Minefield was much greater. There were many reasons for the electrifying power emanating from this performance. One very basic reason was, of course, its crucial theme of war trauma: reliving the nightmare of the battlefield and the agony of reintegration to normal life afterwards. Another, equally important factor was the long rehearsal period, which gave the time to the participants in this brave project to tame and order all this explosive material, and to feel confident enough to replay even deeply confidential sides of personal experience before an audience, having bridged, or at least lessened, the gaps that separated them, nationally and politically, from their co-players from the opposite side. A third important factor was Arias’ sensitive and insightful direction, which, on the one hand, orchestrated and monitored the event and, on the other hand, gave her performers the freedom to doubt, question and revise the production process all along, even after the rehearsal period and during performance.

The toy battle scene with simultaneous live video projection. Photo: courtesy of Lola Arias

This open form allowed not only the infusion of spontaneous personal confession and genuine feeling to the show, but also the occasional critical intervention of a participant on the cut-and-tailor process of the text preparation. The aspect of metatheatre added a third layer of complexity to the already double performance effect of presenting reality and playing theatre simultaneously: it established the veterans/players also as co-authors of the performance text on the same level as Arias. This playful Pirandellian quality challenged the audience even further than the usual evental theatre techniques, because it teased more intensely their mental capacities for distinguishing between graded segments of truth and pretense. Rather than being exposed to flattened or little processed bits of reality, the spectators were called to play a higher agential role: they were asked to perceive chiasmically the endless transformations that the six real-life players underwent on stage not as “six characters in search of an author,”[8] but as auteurs of their staged testimonies, their autofictions.

A player holding a Margaret Thatcher full-face mask.
Photo: courtesy of Lola Arias

Arias’s major contribution to this socially and politically engaged theatrical event was the reinforcement of the artistic component in the theatre of the real, but in such a non-intrusive way that – to use again Lavender’s phrasing – the performance “provide[d] not just a metaphor but also a modus operandi for our relationship to the world” (Lavender 21). It is my contention that Minefield worked in this way for all participants in the event, the war veterans and the spectators, who both became agents for the formation of new personal relationships beyond the constructed boundaries of race, nation and nationhood. Without eliminating individual differences and tensions, either in production or in reception, Minefield managed to create the affiliative atmosphere of a “sensus communis,” which Rancière has envisioned as the special dynamic of an aesthetic community gathering in disconnection (Rancière 59).

A player playing Galtieri in grotesque full-face mask. Photo: courtesy of Lola Arias

This spirit of artistic communality thrived in both the performing and the spectating areas of the house, when I saw the performance in the Royal Court Theatre. The historical building itself was heterotopically transformed to an interactive platform of communication.[9] The vibrant nature of the performance did bring down national boundaries and frictions and aspired, instead, to the type of conviviality that Paul Gilroy analyses in his After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? (2004). Arias’s powerful production reflected a similar kind of positive thinking for the power of social co-habitation with the racial or cultural other and echoed the same kind of hope transpiring in the earlier mentioned study Neo-Nationalism in Europe and Beyond; namely that, despite the advancing menace of nationalism, a return to a new global situation may still be humanly possible.


[1] For detailed information on the work of the Rimini Protokoll see Miriam Dreysse and Florian Malzacher, eds, Experts of the Everyday: The Theatre of Rimini Protokoll.
[2] Produced for the Avignon Festival of 2008.
[3] In chapter 4 (“Feeling the event: From mise en scène to mise en sensibilité”), Lavender makes a very clear case of how contemporary performance has moved from representation to event and then to affect.
[4]The performance review in Culture Whisper (Full source and pagination please) interestingly reports this technique as “bleed[ing] down on to the floor.”
[5] At the time these were the respective Premiers of the two countries in conflict.
[6] In the concluding chapter of her book Watching War on the Twenty-First Century Stage: Spectacles of Conflict (2017), Clare Finburgh discusses Lola Arias’s production Minefield as a brilliant example of a theatrical mode to “regulat[e] [the] violence of spectacle” and “open a breach in order to expose this violence” (11).
[7] The particular productions I have in mind are Prometheus in Athens (2010), Situation Rooms (2013) and Mein Kampf (2016) by Rimini Protokoll, and Testament (2012) by She She Pop.
[8] My reference is to Pirandello’s well-known metatheatrical play Six Characters in Search of an Author.
[9] Joanne Tompkins, in her book Theatre’s Heterotopias: Performance and the Cultural Politics of Space, discusses in detail different aspects of the heterotopic dynamics of theatre.

Works Cited

Arias, Lola. Interview to Maddy Costa. Exeunt Magazine, 11 June 2016. See here (retrieved 30/11/2016).

——. Interview to Lyn Gardner. The Guardian, 26 May 2016. See here (retrieved 30/11/2016).

Banks, Marcus and Andre Gingrich, eds. Neo-Nationalism in Europe and Beyond: Perspectives from Social Anthropology. New York: Berghahn, 2006.

Blejmar, January. “Autofictions of Postwar: Fostering Empathy in Lola Arias’ Minefield/Campo minado.” Latin American Theatre Review 50.2 (2016): 103-23.

Costa, Maddy. “Minefield at the Royal Court.” Review. Exeunt Magazine. 11 June 2016.

Dreysse, Myriam and Florian Malzacher, eds. Experts of the Everyday: The Theatre of Rimini Protokoll. Trans. Daniel Belasco et al. Berlin: Alexander, 2008.

Finburgh, Clare. Watching War on the Twenty-First Century Stage: Spectacles of Conflict. London: Bloomsbury, 2017.

Fischer-Lichte, Erika. The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics. Trans. Saskya Iris Jain. London: Routledge, 2008.

Gardner, Lyn. “Minefield: The Falklands Drama Taking Veterans Back to the Battle.” Review. The Guardian. 26 May 2016.

Gilroy, Paul. After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? Abington: Routledge, 2004.

Holdsworth, Nadine. Theatre and Nation. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2010.

Johnson, Samuel. “Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland’s Islands.” In The Works of Samuel Johnson. Vol. 14. New York: Pafraets and Co, 1913, 34-80. See here (retrieved 20/12/2017).

Lavender, Andy. Performance in the Twenty-First Century: Theatres of Engagement. London: Routledge, 2016.

“Lola Arias’s Minefield explores memories of the Falklands as part of LIFT 2016.” Review. Culture Whisper. See here.

Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

Pirandello, Luigi. Six Characters in Search of an Author. New York: Dover, 1998.

Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. Trans. Gregory Elliott. London: Verso, 2009.

Tompkins, Joanne. Theatre’s Heterotopias: Performance and the Cultural Politics of Space. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2014.

*Elizabeth Sakellaridou is Professor Emerita of Theatre Studies at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece. She has taught on contemporary British theatre, comparative drama, theatre history and performance theory, with special emphasis on space and phenomenology. Her research and publications also move in the area of gender and cultural studies, tragedy and melancholia and the revival of Greek tragedy. Her recent extended essay on the use of glass in contemporary scenography, entitled “Looking from Either Side of Glass,” has been published in Playing Offstage: Theatre as a Presence or Force in Real Life (Lexington, 2017). Her lengthy chapter on contemporary adaptations of Greek tragedy, entitled “Conflict and the Other,” is under publication in the collective volume Adapting Greek Tragedy: Contemporary Contexts for Ancient Texts (CUP, forthcoming). Her current research projects include  a chapter on contemporary Greek dramaturgy for the Routledge volume of collected essays on Contemporary European Playwrights and a theoretical essay on the latest developments in the emerging field of Performance Phenomenology. She is also a translator from Greek into English and vice versa. Her translation of Aki Dimou’s play …and Juliet has been published in the Oberon Anthology of Contemporary Greek Plays (2017). She is also actively involved in Greek theatrical life as dramaturg and translator.

Copyright © 2018 Elizabeth Sakellaridou
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Conflicting Nations, Conversing Individuals in Lola Arias’s Minefield