Friday, 20 January 2017

Theatre review: Us/Them

A short season of visiting shows in rep at the Dorfman starts with Us/Them from BRONKS, a Belgian company that specialises in theatre for children and young people. So the subject it tackles - a terrorist attack in Beslan, Russia in 2004, in which over a thousand children and parents were held hostage in a school - might seem an unlikely one for that audience, but director Carly Wijs has taken as her text the children's own accounts of the event. Various survivors' stories have been boiled down to a boy (Roman Van Houtven) and girl (Gytha Parmentier) who set the scene of this town near the border with Chechnya - from what they've heard from adults, a dark place full of bogeymen. The siege began on the first day of term so their description of the buildings and singing at assembly blur abruptly into a school gym full of a gradually dropping number of hostages.

What Wijs is trying to show is the dispassionate, unbiased way the children tell the story of a terrifying three days in the same way they recount interesting facts they've learned - and how they use the latter to distract themselves from the former.

It's wrapped up in a physical, dance-based performance style, the two actors creating a web of string they have to navigate to represent the precarious situation they're in, with balloons as bombs. Parmentier and Van Houtven are very good at portraying the children without overdoing the childishness - a little element of competition between them about who's telling the story best is a nicely believable touch.

As they descibe children starting to become dangerously dehydrated over several days without food or water, the striking thing about the show is the matter-of-fact way it puts across a horrific story without mawkishness. In fact one of the most pointed digs is at the way the story is told when it's the adults' turn to tell it, with international news networks competing over who can put the saddest music over footage of dead children.

Us/Them by Carly Wijs is booking in repertory until the 18th of February at the National Theatre's Dorfman.

Running time: 1 hour 5 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: FKPH.

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