Arguably a surprise word-of-mouth hit during the 2016 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, this physical-theatre exploration of a mass hostage-taking returns to the Scottish capital with - thanks to the Children's Festival - a far greater chance of reaching its target audience of young people. Presented by Belgian "Art House" Bronks, Us/Them is a remarkable piece of theatre that expertly translates an inhuman ordeal through the language of the playground, into something almost understandable.
A very grown-up show that questions the simplistic narratives we easily rely on to describe ourselves and each other
Starting with an almost completely empty stage, focused performers Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven appear as eager-to-please children, frantic for attention as they draw out a chalk map of their school, 'School No 1 in Beslan', in the Caucasus. Significantly, there’s mention of a path leaving the school that weaves its way through the deep woods to the distant border with Chechnya, a strange land where there are suddenly no trees, where all the men are paedophiles and the women have moustaches. "Othering" is clearly a concern here, as fairy tales mix with the narratives of satellite TV news.
And then the attack happens; arguably the one moment when the show's presentation deliberately loses clarity, the performers’ energetic shouts and running around lost under a loud soundtrack of Russian singing. Afterwards, we have to quickly play catch up, as the school-children, and many of their mothers, grandmothers and even fathers attending a special school assembly (nearly 1200 people in total) have been taken hostage by a group of Chechen terrorists. The siege will eventually end after three days, when Russian security forces storm the building using tanks, incendiary rockets and other heavy weapons. 334 of the hostages, including 186 children, were killed.
Many dry facts about the siege, in particular the numbers involved, are repeated throughout Us/Them, although the reality is filtered through the numerous ways the two 'children' narrate the realities of the occupation, such as the ways in which, hands held high, they marked the passing hours of thirst, heat-exhaustion, and peeing. School classes become the filter through which they try to make sense of what's happening to them: PE is how they survive standing still and arithmetic lessons are how they attempt to work out the practical logistics of a varying number of terrorists keeping watch over more than 1,000 hostages.
With the stage transformed into a cat's cradle of strings representing the terrorists' booby-traps, tied with easily burst black balloons as their bombs, writer and director Carly Wijs's production is certainly unafraid of moments of silence. Significantly, we're often told that something "didn't happen like that", but that’s the whole point. Powerfully performed, Us/Them is a very grown-up show that questions the simplistic narratives we easily rely on to describe ourselves and each other.