Us/Them is an immensely powerful and affecting piece of devised theatre. Winner of a Fringe First at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival the play was originally designed as a children’s show, but has received acclaim by critics as a show for all ages.
The two hander relays and relives the horrific events of the 2004 terrorist attack in Beslan, in which an armed group of radicals stormed Number 1 school taking over 1000 people hostage. The hostages, most of whom were children, were then squeezed into the school’s gymnasium for over two days without food, water or the ability to move. The terrorists then connected the gymnasium from top to bottom with wires that were linked to bombs, taking it in turns to keep a foot placed on the control panel to stop the bombs from going off.
The actors, Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven, communicate this agonizing story clearly and concisely. They tell the tale as though they are part of the group of children trapped within the gymnasium. This delivery is the most shocking aspect of the play. The two young actors describe the action with excitement and vigour. It is as though they have just arrived home from an exhilarating school trip and are bursting to tell their parents all about it. Their language is completely uncensored and the details of the attack that they relay are again those of which you would expect from a child, not an adult.
They tell of how, when the terrorists first cram them into the hall, they must keep still, they must put their hands into the air but they then comment that they can’t even pick their noses; then they laugh. It is haunting to hear such events described so bluntly from a child’s point of view. The descriptions of the bombs are that of curiosity rather than of fear and they ponder as to whether the woman terrorist, who covers her face, does so because she is hiding a large moustache that she doesn’t want anyone to see. Throughout the play they shout out numbers. The number is the amount of people currently in the gymnasium, and it decreases slowly as, on by one, more children die of dehydration.
It is intense, but Parmentier and Van Houtven are sublime and play their parts with utter unflinching commitment. They must be exhausted performing such an energetic and physically demanding piece every night. There vocal energy is enormous and their expression is detailed and clear. It is exceptional story telling.
The show’s design was simple yet crucial. From multiple hooks on the back wall, the actors pulled string and created a complex web that covered the entire stage. It powerfully emulated that of the wired gymnasium. This both gave the actors an obstacle and an incredible visual tool. It felt real, it felt dangerous and it helped to transport our imaginations, horribly, into that room.
I was left in an utter state of shock and dismay. Us/Them left me stunned as to just how moving theatre can be. It was brave, unapologetic and unequivocally affecting.
Us/Them is playing at the National Theatre until February 18.
Photo: Felix Kindermann