Us/Them at the National Theatre
How do we process trauma when it happens on an unimaginable, inexplicable scale? And if that event involves children, how is it explained and packaged to a group of people ideally sheltered from such distress? Anchored by a pair of live-wire performances from Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven, Carly Wijs’ Us/Them is an unforgettable work that seeks to examine those questions through the 2004 Beslan school siege.
Wiljs has the actors throw themselves about the stage with elegant clumsiness and humour, presenting the facts of the siege with the precision of precocious children keen to impress. When the play does eventually approach the question of “why”, it is dealt with in the same cheerful matter-of-fact style as everything else: the pair attempting to break down intangible ideologies and aims using maths they learnt at school.
Reinforcing this sense of imagination is Stef Stessel’s set, constructed from the detritus of childhood memory. Black balloons float overhead while balls of string, attached to hooks designed for coats and school bags, pour forth from an expanse of chalkboard at the back. All this comes to represent bombs and whizzing bullets; the intense crush of more than 1,110 people trapped in one room and the pressures to keep quiet and still.
Just as fascinating is the choice of language when discussing “them”, i.e. anyone who isn’t the children’s “us”. Using the signifiers of fairytale, the Chechens who live across the border are depicted not as ogres but paedophiles, despite the children not knowing what one is; the parents of those trapped, meanwhile, have the tenacity of action heroes yet are still shown in moments of emotional anguish and failure. It is the trickling of an adult perspective into childish escapism, a gradual polluting of innocence. This kind of adult intervention is most poignant at the end, when Parmentier and Van Houvten outline the various ways in which footage of the aftermath was sound-tracked or doctored in different countries, robbing the children’s recollections of their purity.
Wijs has produced something uniquely accessible and unpatronising for all ages. The play is specifically aimed at families, and by dealing with terror using such a lightness of touch the director opens a necessary path to discuss the horrors that will inevitably be encountered by children, be it on TV, in newspapers or on the internet, without resorting to the prejudices of adulthood.
Us/Them is at the National Theatre from 20th January to 18th February 2017, for further information or to book a visit here.