Us/Them review: A story for children that no child should ever have to hear
Dublin Theatre Festival: Bronks stages a powerful, politically charged account of the Beslan massacre
Us/Them: Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven give impeccable performances in Carly Wijs’s production
Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire
How do you tell the story of a national tragedy? How do you represent an act of terrorism on stage? In Us/Them the Belgian theatre company Bronks approaches these questions through the eyes of young people, providing an insider view of the Beslan massacre of 2004, when a group of Islamist militants laid siege to a school gymnasium in North Ossetia, in Russia, trapping almost 1,200 people, mostly children, inside.
Its director, Carly Wijs, gives us a narrow, knee-high view of the event; the information the two performers share with us is the type of material relevant not to a historian or a political expert but to the key witnesses of the tragedy: children.
The performers use twine to spin a web of tripwire across the stage in imitation of their captors, using the benign symbol of black balloons to mark the location of bombs
On a stark grey set flanked by a wall with coat hooks, Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven draw a map of the gymnasium on the floor with chalk, including the hall’s entrances and exits – points of particular importance for tardy 10-year-olds. Using twine, they spin a spider’s web of tripwire across the stage in imitation of their captors, using the benign, buoyant symbols of black balloons to mark the location of bombs in the auditorium. These are the tools of childhood being used to tell a story no child should ever have to hear.
The context the children provide for the terrorist attack is similarly authentic. Talking over each other at speed, and wide-eyed for dramatic effect, they present exaggerated hearsay as history (“Chechen women have moustaches!”), the ridiculousness of their Chinese-whispers approach to the conflict underscoring its fundamental irrelevance.
Faced with the horror of three days in captivity, they deal with death metaphorically as a numbers game, fantasise about “armies of fathers” coming to their rescue, and imagine alternative endings to the tragedy. One young girl even gets a bitter-sweet ending: “I always wanted to be on TV.”
Us/Them is a powerful piece of politically charged theatre, and it is impeccably performed by Parmentier and Van Houtven, who use their bodies as much as their voices to tell the story. It was originally created for young audiences, an age group that was, unfortunately, almost entirely absent on opening night. With luck they will get the chance to hear from their peers before the end of the production’s short run.
Runs until Sunday, October 13th, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival