Us/Them

161006_wij-zij_fkph_300dpi_103_von_139Us/Them by Carly Wijs

At the Dorfman Theatre (National Theatre)

21st January 2017

“Oh wonderful new future!”

This is an unusual theatrical experience directed by Carly Wijs and presented by BRONKS, the Brussels-based company that specialises in creating grown-up theatre for young audiences.

On September 1, 2004, 32 armed Chechen rebels took approximately 1,200 children and adults hostage at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, Russia. The siege ended three days later with numerous dead and more than 700 people wounded.

Wijs was inspired to write about the Beslan siege after her eight-year-old son talked to her about the 2013 terrorist attack in a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. She was struck by his matter of fact tone and lack of visible distress when describing the atrocities and realised children process trauma differently from adults.

This is why she chose to recount the Beslan bloodbath from the perspective of two child hostages –a girl (Gytha Parmentier) and boy (Roman Van Houtven).

The stage looks like a playroom which is the centre piece for this immersive theatre.  Parmentier and Van Houtven chalk out the layout of the school on the floor. Facts are scrawled on the blackboard. String marks the tripwires of the terrorists, and the tiny spaces in which the captives manoeuvre: the entire stage is enclosed in a cat’s cradle.

At its centre is a revolving team of terrorists who must at all times keep one foot on a detonator attached to a bomb (in this world, black balloons equal bombs), swapping over every two hours. Clinical calculations appear on the back wall, every reduction in the total number representing death. They begin singing traditional songs which suddenly break down into a serial chaos adorned with movement and dance. When the confusion slowly clears, they reveal that terrorists have barricaded themselves in the school’s gymnasium with 777 children plus 300 parents and teachers.

The ambiguity of the final events is played out in three separate denouements. Probably none of which accurately explains what happened after a bomb exploded and security forces invaded the gymnasium in their attempts to free those who by then had been trapped for days.

Through all this voyeuristic experience, we do gain an emotional reality, funny at times  and painful at others. Yet, the children do not experience this narrative in the same way that adults might. They have a sort of emotional amnesia (as all children do), which allows them to experience anger, pain, sorrow in a flash and then move on. It makes them very efficient story-tellers; an ability to switch easily and quickly from one heightened emotional state to the next.

What is chilling is  the  children’s refusal to address anything other than the facts until the reality of the situation begins to catch up with them. It is a physical reality rather than an emotional one. The hostages, denied food and water throughout the siege, begin to suffer. They fall to the ground. They begin to choke. But throughout it all the children faithfully follow the terrorists’ commands, carefully keeping their hands raised and eyes to the ceiling. It is difficult to watch misplaced faith writ large: that childlike and deeply mistaken belief that if they follow the rules, all will be fine.

Maybe, as adults, then, we too have developed out own sort of emotional amnesia: a refusal to look head-on at these atrocities and accept the truth that ‘they’ might one day be ‘us.

 

directed by Carly Wijs and presented by BRONKS, the Brussels-based company that specialises in creating grown-up theatre for young audiences.

On September 1, 2004, 32 armed Chechen rebels took approximately 1,200 children and adults hostage at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, Russia. The siege ended three days later with numerous dead and more than 700 people wounded.

Wijs was inspired to write about the Beslan siege after her eight-year-old son talked to her about the 2013 terrorist attack in a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. She was struck by his matter of fact tone and lack of visible distress when describing the atrocities and realised children process trauma differently from adults.

This is why she chose to recount the Beslan bloodbath from the perspective of two child hostages –a girl (Gytha Parmentier) and boy (Roman Van Houtven).

The stage looks like a playroom which is the centre piece for this immersive theatre.  Parmentier and Van Houtven chalk out the layout of the school on the floor. Facts are scrawled on the blackboard. String marks the tripwires of the terrorists, and the tiny spaces in which the captives manoeuvre: the entire stage is enclosed in a cat’s cradle.

At its centre is a revolving team of terrorists who must at all times keep one foot on a detonator attached to a bomb (in this world, black balloons equal bombs), swapping over every two hours. Clinical calculations appear on the back wall, every reduction in the total number representing death. They begin singing traditional songs which suddenly break down into a serial chaos adorned with movement and dance. When the confusion slowly clears, they reveal that terrorists have barricaded themselves in the school’s gymnasium with 777 children plus 300 parents and teachers.

The ambiguity of the final events is played out in three separate denouements. Probably none of which accurately explains what happened after a bomb exploded and security forces invaded the gymnasium in their attempts to free those who by then had been trapped for days.

Through all this voyeuristic experience, we do gain an emotional reality, funny at times  and painful at others. The children do not experience this narrative in the same way that adults might. They have a sort of emotional amnesia (as all children do), which allows them to experience anger, pain, sorrow in a flash and then move on. It makes them very efficient story-tellers; an ability to switch easily and quickly from one heightened emotional state to the next.

What is chilling is  the  children’s refusal to address anything other than the facts until the reality of the situation begins to catch up with them. It is a physical reality rather than an emotional one. The hostages, denied food and water throughout the siege, begin to suffer. They fall to the ground. They begin to choke. But throughout it all the children faithfully follow the terrorists’ commands, carefully keeping their hands raised and eyes to the ceiling. It is difficult to watch misplaced faith writ large: that childlike and deeply mistaken belief that if they follow the rules, all will all be fine.

Maybe, as adults, then, we too have developed out own sort of emotional amnesia: a refusal to look head-on at these atrocities and accept the truth that ‘they’ might one day be ‘us.