“People were not convinced in the beginning that children would not be traumatised by this subject,” starts Carly Wijs, writer and director of Us/Them. Produced by BRONKS, a Brussels-based children’s theatre, it dramatizes the events of the Beslan school siege in 2004. Over 1,100 people were taken hostage, including children. Three days later, in circumstances still not completely understood, it ended with a bomb exploding and 334 people dead.
Although BRONKS invited Wijs to create Us/Them, the idea of the play was initially met with reticence from venues and audiences. As positive reviews started to come rolling in – including several five-star write-ups from the Edinburgh Fringe – the reaction shifted considerably. But why did she want to make work about such an upsetting subject in the first place?
On one level, it was about challenging what was seen as the ‘right thing’ to do: “There’s always a bit of a mean streak”¦ and I found it quite exciting to do something that’s not done.”
But there was far more to her decision. It might not be clear from the National Theatre’s publicity that the show is deliberately designed as children’s theatre (although many adults, myself included, have taken a huge amount from it). This designation is important because Wijs’ aim in creating it was to explore the difference in responses to trauma from children and adults – a fact perhaps not appreciated by the adults wondering if it would be too traumatic for children to process.
Instead of being depressed by the full horror of the Beslan siege, young audiences coming to Us/Them just see “children in a hard spot. To be honest, Peter Pan is in a bad spot, and Bambi loses his mother. So they do watch these stories all the time, only they’re fictional stories, and this is based on a true story.”
Us/Them also uses a child’s view of the world to focus on the media’s depiction of the Beslan siege, highlighting how people might hold different memories of the same events.
“I thought that if I can just give them the slightest awareness that when they watch anything, on the internet, on TV, that somebody has chosen the images, somebody is telling me a story and it’s not necessarily the objective truth.”
Interestingly the National Theatre upped the recommended age for Us/Them to 12+, rather than the 9+ it had been designed for in Belgium. This might seem like an arbitrary distinction to those less familiar with children’s development, and was decided by the NT, Wijs imagines, “knowing their audience”. Presumably it was to do with the subject matter. Yet the introduction of critical thinking as a part of the play was specifically focused on a child of around nine years old.
“When you’re six or seven, you just accept anything that they’re telling you. And then there’s the age where you have to start developing some sort of critique so that you can manage in life. It’s very important that we have children that can think for themselves. Or at least, that’s what I think is important. More important than being ‘good’.”
The onset of puberty, she continues, is too late to start trying to introduce these concepts. “I think that if you want to develop a critical mind, that’s the age [9+] you should start, not at 12. Because at 12, that’s the age the hormones kick in and they go crazy. To be able to sail through that difficult time of not knowing who you are and your body changing, you need some kind of a critical mind in order to stay afloat.”
Adults as much as children find this critical mindset difficult to develop, which is exactly why, in Wijs’ opinion, we need to prioritise teaching it to children.
“It’s very scary for a lot of people to imagine that there is no truth. That is something you need to grasp for yourself and, with religion pulling away, it makes a lot of people very insecure. But I think it’s very important to give them tools so that they can actually manage and get by in a world that’s very difficult to comprehend.”
Whether or not the subject matter of Us/Them is too challenging for children, on an emotional level it’s certainly deeply moving. Adults “walk out like ‘phffffttt, ‘I need to walk, I need a beer, I need some alcohol’.”
Whilst Us/Them continues to tour, Wijs has already started creating a new play, this time with an entirely different emotional feeling behind it. “It’s about making the audience happy. We haven’t found the ending just yet, because happy endings are just not my forte. But people come out of the audience feeling very uplifted and jolly and bright!”
Titled Show, the play does still stick with a theme some adults might have a problem seeing in children’s theatre: sex.
“I thought, so, they get sex education which is all about the biology side: how it works and what to do to prevent getting pregnant or to prevent getting diseases. But it’s very problematic. It’s all about problems that might arise from sexuality, but the biggest part of sexuality is that it’s actually quite nice!”
She readily admits that the paradox is that you cannot really explain sex at all, apart from going down the science route. Yet, the experience of sex is emotional, sensual and, of course, actually pretty fun for the most part. In Show, Wijs tackles this inexplicable side of sex by using metaphor and insinuation.
“It’s kind of a meta piece where you’ve got two actors explaining ‘I’m the magician’ and ‘I’m the dancer’ and then you see the magician and then the dancer. And what we do is we use magic tricks as a metaphor. Because with magic tricks, you look at it and you’re amazed but you don’t know how it works. We use that metaphor for sex.”
Show is aimed at a 10+ audience. Given that Us/Them was granted a higher age range in the UK, we discuss the potential for the recommended age of Show to similarly change because, as she says, the British are “very strange about sex!”
It’s this she suggests, full of laughter, that also leads to the British obsession with sex scandals and some famously odd behaviour: “a Prime Minister who sticks his penis in the head of a pig, is just something that really doesn’t exist [in Belgium and Holland]. It’s really something that we cannot imagine, but on the other hand, I think it’s because sexuality is so suppressed that you start doing things like that!”
With Show, she feels people may be “embarrassed because we do oral sex scenes, we do bondage”¦ it’s all in there. In a light, humorous way, it’s all in there.” The intention isn’t to get people squirming, it’s to demonstrate that sex for “most people it’s just a very happy thing. Most people are happy after they’ve had it! It’s not a problematic thing for most people.”
Along with the possibility that less of the ‘No Sex Please, we’re British’ attitude could help avoid more than just the defilement of pig heads, it also links to another part of the conversation I have with Wijs, which roams from creating theatre for children and communicating with them, whether about terrorism or sex, to thoughts about censorship more widely. This isn’t just about sex, or death, it’s about freedom of expression – and writing at the end of January 2017, it feels particularly important to consider this:
“If we’re really worrying about hurting other people’s feelings when we go to the theatre, then we have a problem, because then we cannot tell stories”¦ The basis of democracy is that you accept opinions that you might find appalling. That’s the basis of democracy. Now, if we’re worried about that, then there’s no place for you in democracy. That’s the end if we start doing that.”
Us/Them is on at the National Theatre until 18th February 2017. Click here for more details.