This is a show with coloured chalks and a handful of black balloons. This is a show performed by people in bright yellow polo necks that clamber over each other like happy pre-schoolers. This is a show that uses nothing more than a lot of string and a few scribbled chalky equations to tell parts of the story. And this is also a show that made me cry for the entire time it took to walk the distance between Summerhall and the Pavilion coffee shop on the west side of the Meadows.
It’s surprising what becomes a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe. A five star review from Lyn Gardner (as Us/Them received) no doubt helps matters, but still the idea that a show aimed at children with a 10am start time would be turning people away at the doors – as happened on the day I watched it – was probably not predicted by many.
The basic description of the show doesn’t make it appear a more likely contender. A children’s show explaining the Beslan siege of 2004, in which armed Chechen terrorists held over a thousand people hostage in a school. Yet in its simplicity of form and astute depiction of events, Us/Them pierces through a mountain of political jargon to get at the human side of the story.
Performers Gytha Parmentier and Roman van Houtven begin by squabbling over how best to draw a map of Beslan’s School No 1 on the floor. Like with any place contained in memories, the idea of the school is different for the individuals. They climb in contorted shapes, desperate in their childish way to show off to the crowd – she wants us to know that she is really good at drawing, and he needs to tell people about his father the butcher and how much better eating meat is than boring potatoes. Their memories overlap and contradict one another, but ultimately lead to the construction of a complete school. By the end of the performance this composite artwork will be all but rubbed out.
On Tuesday I saw monumental as part of the Edinburgh International Festival. It is a show determined to be grown up with its searing soundscape and monochromatic commentary of the capitalist system. At times the work is highly effective, but at others this straight-faced approach means elements – particularly the projected text – read as embarrassingly adolescent in their angst. In complete contrast, there is something that seems quietly mature and confident about a piece of theatre that choses the format of and takes seriously children’s theatre. Without a hint of pretentiousness, Us/Them displays the acuteness often present in a child’s more simplistic explanation.
Along with describing the specific events in Beslan, this is also a show about attempts to make sense of trauma and to understand why things occurred as they did. It is also – and again without being didactic – about the relationship between different groups (indeed, the title of the production suggests this is perhaps the most important theme of all). It shows the pervasiveness of rumours about different groups and the way they are adopted by children, even when they are too young to fully understand the meaning of the words they say.
But above all, Us/Them is a show about the futility of death, particularly that of children. The what-ifs that are left in the vacancy created. The idea that once a girl existed who wanted to be on television and how this came true in the saddest way imaginable.