Us/Them is the story of the Beslan school siege in Russia – a devastating terrorist attack in September 2004, which resulted in the death of 330 hostages, including 186 children – told from the perspective of two young students. It is a delicate two-hander, told largely through movement. It isn’t sensationalist. It isn’t even explicitly emotional, although – ultimately – there’s deep pain and sorrow in here. Above all, this is an extraordinarily thoughtful and compassionate play about the way in which the young process trauma and the different filters that children and adults place over the truth. It is also about how we learn to look away, the older we become.
The show begins with the two actors – Gytha Parmentier (all smiles and eager pep) and Roman Van Houtven (gangly innocence and charm) – crawling around the stage, empty except for a climbing wall along the back. The two are clutching chalk and very carefully drawing the outline of their school on the stage floor, pointing out exits, classrooms, a gymnasium, and hiding spaces as they go. The girl and boy keep bumping into each other, but their focus never wanes. What matters is completing the map. What matters is that they reflect their reality, whatever it might be, as accurately as possible.
Director Carly Wijs’ show shimmers with a strange double emotional reality, which makes it very funny at times – and awfully painful at others. The children do not experience this ‘story’ in the same way that adults might. They have a sort of emotional amnesia (as all children do), which allows them to experience anger, pain, sorrow in a flash – and then move on. It makes them very efficient story-tellers – able to jump easily and quickly from one heightened emotional state to the next. But this emotional forgetfulness begins to have a gruelling effect on the audience, as we’re left to hold onto the emotions, which the children so quickly forget, or simply cannot – at this stage – understand.
It’s the first day of the school term and the two children sing a song: ‘Oh wonderful new future!’ With their chests puffed out and their voices ringing loud and clear, there’s not a hint of irony about the children’s performances – that irony is left to us to absorb and, perhaps, keep concealed. It’s a horrible burden, which only continues to grow – slowly and imperceptibly – throughout the show.
The siege begins and reality is again oddly – but honestly – skewed by the two children caught up in this horror. The day begins to feel like an Action Adventure film. The girl and boy imagine their dads rushing to action, as news of the horror hits the town. They count down the seconds to their inevitable rescue. But the dads don’t arrive. The two dream up possible reasons for this delay – traffic jams or other distractions. But still the fathers do not come. What is most devastating of all, throughout Us/Them, is the moment when the children’s expected narrative, the good endings they have grown up believing in, are sickeningly subverted.
Stef Stessel’s design plays tricks on us, with images that are beautiful and comforting – but also chilling and ugly (it just depends on your perspective). The children grab long threads from inside the climbing holds. They pull the threads back and forth across the stage, until a complex web fills the ‘gymnasium’ in which the children, teachers and parents are now held hostage. That web is the teeming life caught up in the siege, but it is also the town beyond the school walls, the network of families connected to those trapped inside. Sometimes it seems like that web represents the political communities – Putin and his secret service – whose response to the mission is so lethally intertwined with the fate of those hostages. Most literally, of course, those strings stand in for the bombs that have been installed throughout the gym – the bombs that will eventually explode in the raid that ended the siege, along with so many of the hostages’ lives.
Later, following a failed rescue attempt, the climbing holds in the back wall let in sharp shards of light – bullet holes, through which the sun pierces. It looks kind of beautiful, even if it is an image that reeks of death. Look at how we are beginning to sanitize this tragedy; look at how the lighting and music plays tricks on our senses, and begins to soften the edges of this unimaginably awful day.
Gradually, despite the children’s resolute cheer – and their refusal to address anything other than the facts– the reality of the situation begins to catch up with them. It is a physical reality rather than an emotional one. The hostages, denied food and water throughout the siege, begin to suffer. They fall to the ground. They begin to choke. But throughout it all the children faithfully follow the terrorists’ commands, carefully keeping their hands raised and eyes to the ceiling. It’s heart-breaking to watch that misplaced faith writ large – that childlike and deeply mistaken belief that if they follow the rules, it will all be OK.
As the siege stretches out over three impossible days, the children faithfully report the number of hostages – a number which is slowly chipped away at. For the two children, these numbers are simply a sum they must complete. It is left to the adults in the audience to take on the emotional impact of that sum, the real people behind those figures.
Our faith is slowly eroded; our souls steadily and unstoppably cooled.
As the siege finally comes to an end – and a total of 330 hostages are killed in one final and brutal raid – the story is aired on news channels across the world. The two children re-enact these broadcasts for us and, with each re-telling in each country, mournful classical music is layered over the commentary, soft lighting laid on and a poetical sorrow threaded throughout. As adults, then, we too have developed out own sort of emotional amnesia: a refusal to look head-on at these atrocities and accept the truth that ‘they’ might one day be ‘us’.
Us/Them is on at the National Theatre until 18th February 2017. Click here for more details.