Us/Them – Q Theatre March 22, 2018

A child victim’s experience of terrorism is well outside the usual theatrical fodder, but Us/Them drops us into the middle of the 2004 Beslan School Siege. The 13th Floor’s Neesha Bremner attended opening night.

Us/Them is an unfolding of the chaotic 2004 Beslan School Siege. We see the Siege through the eyes of two traumatised children.

In Beslan, nearly 1,200 people including children, mothers and grandmothers, were taken hostage for three days by terrorists, using them as part of their brutish demands for recognition of Chechnya as an independent state.

Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven are a powerful duo.

The pair weave around each other in synchronised movements and use the fluid, pared-back language of young ones as they bring their stark truth to their shocking situation. They draw a chalk map of the school,  and later construct strings across the stage (the garland of bomb wires has a powerful, disturbing resonance.) They list the brutal reality of the terrorists’ action, and intersperse facts of their childhood dramas too – their daily lives and their sometimes-competitive friendships. They portray their agony and innocence on a stripped -back stage,  which slowly becomes encumbered with those paradoxically named “garlands of wires,” and the black balloons which give the bombs an eerie stage presence.

The synchronised speaking, so redolent of childhood, not only recounts events in a factual, almost unemotional way, but also suddenly changes tempo to signify moments of change. The effect is unsettling and profound.

Here are some of the ‘fact lists’ based on the stark news story:

  • The main building – 3 levels.
  • Books in School Number One – 2839.
  • Doctors in Beslan that day- 58.
  • The terrorist demands – 3.
  • The people in the hall- 1149…1148 people…

The disturbing bloodlessness of a list has never been so well highlighted.

And then the magnificence of playwright Carly Wijs becomes ever clearer. The coldness of the list contrasted with the children imagining, one by one,  how their heroic fathers will rescue them. Perhaps the most moving of these voiced dreams for me was the image of the heroic father on the fastest tractor in town. We can feel the childhood escape in to the imagination as the horror of the siege bleeds in.

Wijs has a lightness of touch and even manages touches of humour. It’s all so contradictory but it works. It draws us in. We can relate to the way a child in the middle of trauma would try to understand what is happening. We empathise with how they would cope in the midst of such horror and confusion. There is somehow still an innocence retained. A human miracle.

“It’s very warm in here, I have not gone to the bathroom for 37 hours, my last record for not going to the bathroom was 13 hours.”

One aspect I especially loved was the  physicality and movement of this play.

The enactments of terrorist movements, especially the laying of bombs or  regular terrorist-made shifts in the bomb pressure plates are deeply affecting. The sense of catastrophe builds relentlessly.

This hour-long piece winds  in the audience through allegory, propaganda (all the women in Grozny have Moustaches – didn’t you know?) string, chalk, song, imagination and fact, woven intricately, to tell the story of trauma, life, survival of hope in the face of death, death itself, and the aftermath of terror.

I left the theatre with tears in my eyes.

Us/Them appears at the Rangatira Q Theatre until March 25th.

Please note this play is NOT recommended for children under 12.

Neesha Bremner