On 1 September 2004, around 30 terrorists demanding Chechen independence attacked School Number One in Beslan, North Ossetia. The date had been carefully chosen: the traditional start of the Russian school year – known as ‘First Bell’ or ‘Knowledge Day’ – when the school is packed not only with students, but also many of their parents and relatives. For three days the terrorists held more than 1,000 of them hostage in the school’s gymnasium in stifling heat. Finally – and under circumstances that remain contentious – Russian Special Forces, responding to an explosion inside the bomb-rigged gymnasium, stormed the building, the siege culminating in a horrific bloodbath: more than 330 people dead, many of them children.
In Us/Them, written and directed by Carly Wijs and produced by Belgian children’s theatre company BRONKS, the atrocity at Beslan forms the basis of a quietly affecting two-hander, its child protagonists – portrayed with impressive skill and verve by Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven – intriguingly unreliable narrators of the play’s events. But the work is only nominally about the siege. Its true subject is trauma, and how children process and sublimate it. And it is also, I think, about storytelling, and the ways in which we construct narratives to make meaningful, and to assimilate, events that, in their horror, approximate our worst nightmares.
The atrocity at Beslan forms the basis of this affecting two-hander, its child protagonists portrayed by Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven.
The boy and girl begin by chalking a map of the school onto the floor, their movements inflected with a subtle, often mirroring choreography that gently emphasises parts of the text. In dialogue that sees them competitively talk over each other, as well as in tandem and trailing echoes, they note the positions of the exits and outbuildings, where the gymnasium and classrooms are, but cannot agree on all of the details. The map, like their subsequent reconstruction of the siege, is partial and imperfect – as much as anything else, the work illustrates our recent understanding that memories are not static and change over time – and is subject to the pair’s authentically childlike combination of intense focus and relentless movement of thought and action.
The production too, under Wijs’ direction, formalises this dynamic, sharing its quality of ‘now this, now this, now this…’ as the boy and girl airily flit from one recollection to another, carefully enumerating the facts of the siege – especially the numbers of terrorists and hostages – but always quickly moving on, leaving space for the audience to do the work of filling in their significance in human terms. Without irony, the boy and girl fall into preconditioned modes of thinking – bigoted views of their Chechen neighbours as paedophiles and moustachioed women, fantasies of being rescued from the terrorists by the town’s menfolk, and, most affectingly, the belief that things will turn out right in the end. Their view of the world is pragmatic and pre-political, their fascination with the hostage-takers not a matter of ideology or even, particularly, fear, but simply curiosity, as in their meticulous re-enacting of the terrorists’ ritual of swapping watch over the bomb that will ultimately, and horrifically, bring about the siege’s end.
Stef Stessel’s set is excellent, as mutable in its way as the childrens’ view of the play’s events. At the back of the mostly bare stage is a wall, studded with bag hooks that will later be revealed to be attached to ropes that, in a strikingly choreographed sequence, Parmentier and Houtven will string across the space, representing both the network of terrorist booby-traps and, more abstractly, the us/them of the play’s title – the social and political demarcations we make to separate and occlude.
Finally, the hooks are replaced with bullet holes in a vivid image of the cost of this othering. Light streams through them into the gymnasium, now filled with the bodies of children – some collapsed from thirst, others pretending to be dead, many more crushed or burned to death when the bombs went off, and the roof fell in – and the siege becomes a major news story. Another kind of othering takes place, the boy and girl mocking the international news outlets that hold up the survivors as heroes, as deities almost. As with the siege itself, the work ends shockingly abruptly, leaving as many questions as answers and the impression that the young audiences to which it is targeted will not feel talked down to by it.
At the Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre until March 12