Few people will have imagined what it must be like for a child to stare into the face of malignant terrorism. Few people will have discussed terrorism and its forms with a child. Yet children see and hear the news every day – complete with its death tolls, atrocity lists and portents for the unspeakable. They talk together. They dream. They fear. They hope. Us/Them, a potent miracle of theatricality, unlocks the child’s view of terrorism with spectacular style.
There is something genuinely extraordinary playing in the Dorfman Theatre. Us/Them, while not a National Theatre production, has been rightly programmed by Rufus Norris, and even though it is barely an hour long, it puts to shame many of the other productions that have recently played at the National Theatre.
It is no exaggeration to say that there has never been a piece of theatre like Us/Them. It is as light as a fairytale, as dark as film noir, as effervescent as an Oscar Wilde comedy, and as searing and insightful as anything written by Arthur Miller or Patrick Marber. It dances to its own tune, elegantly and flippantly, and its powerful undercurrents pull hard.
Designed as a piece for younger audiences, Us/Them is theatre for all ages, all sensibilities, all beliefs, all convictions. Tragedy and innocence waltz together, leaving hand-prints on the hearts of all who see it.
Carly Wijs, who created the piece and directs it with resolute assurance and immense heart, observes in the programme:
If you type ‘Beslan’ into Google and look at the pictures, it is riveting. You cannot let go of the horror. The fact that it involves children makes that feeling even stronger. But how can we put such indescribable acts on stage? How can we make something that is totally incomprehensible, understandable? And isn’t it taboo to make a piece of theatre about terrorism, for audiences that include children?
Ultimately, no subject is taboo for children. It is just important that you use the right words. Discussing the topic of terrorism with children is a challenge, but it can be done…
As adults, we apparently have a need for an overly dramatised perspective, that leads us into black and white thinking: ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’. The refreshing thing about a child’s gaze is that it is not coloured by the need for dramatic interpretation, because that view of things does not connect to their own life. And if it does connect to their own life, it is tackled through imagination. That is what Us/Them is about.
I doubt that there could be a better encapsulation of what lies behind the thinking that led to the creation of Us/Them. There is an almost Alice in Wonderland feel to the storytelling, as the two characters, a boy and a girl, relate the traumatic events of the siege on School Number One on their first day of class. You feel their innocent acceptance of all that befalls them, including privations and fatalities. Hard. Like it smacked you in the head.
Watching Us/Them galvanises in you a need to ensure that such atrocities never occur again. It does this in a way that formal documentaries or worthy reporting simply cannot replicate. This is vital, important, theatre of awakening.
It is also remarkable physical theatre. The actors, Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven, are exceptional, and they have that ability to be constantly on the move, pushing themselves into hyperactivity, manic movement and constant choreography with what seems like effortless energised skill, while at the same time achieving stillness, plausibility and emotional maturity/immaturity (as the moment requires).
Both Parmentier and Van Houten achieve the impossible – they are totally believable as young scholars trapped in a nightmare they barely understand and totally believable as the adult marauders whose terrorist act causes such fatal grief. They do this while telling the tale in the manner you might expect a detached traumatised witness to explain the unfolding of events. They demonstrate passionate, extreme skill. Each is marvellous to behold.
There is a section where the duo run all around the stage, creating a complex maze of string lines. It’s obviously well rehearsed, yet it does not seem that way. Parmentier and Van Houten make it seem spontaneous, a brilliantly simple way to convey sophisticated ideas.
See this production while you can. Wijs has formulated something beautiful, graceful and unique out of an appalling act of terrorism. It is quite unmissable.