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Us/Them review at Summerhall, Edinburgh – ‘outstanding’

Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven in Us/Them Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven in Us/Them at Summerhall, Edinburgh. Photo: Felix Kindermann
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Recreating the horror onstage of a mass hostage-taking is a challenge, even more so if you want to do a play about children hostages for a nine-plus family audience. But in tackling the three days of the siege of School No 1 in Beslan, Belgium’s Bronks Theatre creates a truly outstanding piece of theatre where an inhuman ordeal becomes somehow understandable, filtered through this very modern, accessible retelling.

Beslan was the setting for a draconian intervention in 2004 by the Russian government against armed Chechen hostage-takers that led to the deaths of hundreds of Ossetian schoolchildren, their parents, grandparents and teachers, an event which writer/director Carly Wijs frames by having two children from the siege narrate it.

Played with supreme focus by adult actors Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven, the pair vie with each other to tell us about their lives in general, their world view filtering the enormity of their situation and somehow making sense of it all. They cheerfully itemise the good things about their town and the horrid things about their neighbours the Chechens, they chalk out the school layout across the stage, then energetically enact the occupation by the gunmen, marking their hours at gunpoint simply through thirst, peeing and feeling hot.

As things turns darker, the children turn from the language of the playground to that of their lessons – arithmetic becomes the medium to work out the logistics of 35 gunmen versus 1,139 hostages, singing allows them to articulate the politics behind it all. PE helps them wriggle out of having to stand still all the time. Meanwhile they construct a giant cat’s cradle to convey the web of the guns and boobytrap bombs.

Working with Wijs as director, Parmentier and Houtven mix a compelling blend of direct-to-audience narration and physicality to allow us to see the trauma wrought by the adult world through innocent eyes without once playing on our expected feelings of pity.

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Children’s view of the horror of a hostage-taking at their school is an outstanding piece of theatre for all ages