- Title: Us/Them
- Written and directed by: Carly Wijs
- Actors: Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven
- Company: Bronks and Richard Jordan Productions; Mirvish Productions
- Venue: CAA Theatre
- City: Toronto
- Year: Runs to March 15
Us/Them is a show from a Belgian theatre for young audiences company called Bronks that tackles a subject that is difficult even for adults to process: the 2004 Beslan school siege. That hostage-taking by Chechen rebels ended with the deaths of 334 people, including 186 children.
After runs across Europe including at the National Theatre in London, the acclaimed 2014 two-hander is now having its Canadian premiere in Toronto as part of the Off-Mirvish season.
Us/Them – although written and directed by an adult Belgian playwright named Carly Wijs – is framed as if it were a presentation created by two unnamed children taken hostage during the three-day siege in Beslan.
The girl (Gytha Parmentier) and the boy (Roman Van Houtven) are not great about setting up their story, or telling it with a traditional narrative arc, but they are very precise about certain aspects of what happened when a group of men (and two women) from across the border showed up in their town with guns and bombs on the first day of school.
The children carefully draw an outline of the school grounds on the floor and the back wall of their set in chalk. They describe what happens to body and mind when you are suffering from dehydration from one hour to the next. And they are very detailed about how the terrorists placed bombs in basketball nets and arranged a detonator that would go off automatically if there were any attempts to storm the school.
In other ways, however, the girl and boy are unreliable narrators – or, I suppose, reliable in relating untruths adults have told them about the world. They tell us, for example, that the people who live across the border are all pedophiles. (Neither is entirely sure what the word “pedophile” means, however.)
The children’s presentation is at times undermined by their squabbling. The girl and boy sometimes play music too loudly, drowning out their voices, or dissolve into giggles over potty humour. Their account is prone to slip into fantasies, too – about an army of fathers coming to the rescue or a magical giraffe.
And their show ends not with the expected emotional climax and sober conclusion, but an over-the-top simulation of emotion followed by a jarring non-sequitur.
Exactly what happened at the end of the Beslan siege that led to so many deaths is still a matter of dispute in Russia. A 2017 European Court of Human Rights ruling found that the government’s use of “indiscriminate force” in response to the attack contributed to the high number of casualties.
But Wijs’s show is not really about Beslan, per se. The show, instead, seems an attempt to show how children absorb (and do not absorb) real-world horrors. Wijs wrote the play after noticing the way her own eight-year-old talked about a terrorist attack: He listed facts, in a seemingly aloof manner. She discovered young survivors of the Beslan siege related what happened to them in a similarly detached way in a BBC documentary on the subject.
Watching children talk about terrible things they should never have witnessed can be immensely affecting. Recently at the Tate Modern in London, I saw a video by the Turkish artist Erkan Ozgen called Wonderland, in which a young deaf-mute boy acts out his family’s violent escape from Syria. It’s one of the most haunting pieces of art I’ve ever seen.
By contrast, I found Us/Them undermined by the artificiality of its aesthetic. Designer Stef Stessel’s minimalist set is very slick and European. There are coat hooks on the back wall that have long strings attached to them, that the actors use to turn the stage into a kind of web.
Playing the children, Parmentier and Van Houtven run around hopping over or sliding under the string like Tom Cruise evading the beams of light in Mission: Impossible. They are skilled physical performers and very clearly adults playing children; the bright single-colour costumes made them seem more like children’s entertainers than children to my eyes.
Is the audience meant to be detached from this 60-minute show, too? Us/Them left me cold – and puzzled if this was owing to the context it is being presented in (a subscription series for adults) or the show itself.
Find out what’s new on Canadian stages from Globe theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck in the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.