Us / Them @ The Studio, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Carly Wijis' brave and insightful show pays homage to the children affected by terrorism

Live Review by Dominic Corr | 13 Jun 2019
  • Us / Them @ The Studio, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Armed with chalk, actors Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven kick off this production by drawing lines on the floor. Harmless, surely? A couple of kids about to begin a game of hopscotch? Quickly, however, we realise that they’re sketching out a ground plan – a birdseye view of the Beslan school siege of 2004, during which 1,100 hostages were taken captive by terrorists, and 334 people were killed. 

As a society, we often try our hardest to conceal the horrors of war from children. With this show about the 2004 travesty in North Ossetia, made for family audiences ages 10 and up, director Carly Wijs seems intent on doing the opposite. In the process she's created a bright and insightful piece that deals sensitively with difficult issues, whilst never underestimating the extrordinary resilience of children.    

While its intentions may be contentious for some, it's evident that a show about terrorism seen through the eyes of two children makes for remarkable theatre. Presenting issues concerning war, terror and violence from this angle is a daring and wholly unique decision, and one that is pulled off by outstanding writing, impeccable lead performances and a set design that is simultaneously sublime and grim. 

As the two children at the centre of this piece, Parmentier and Van Houtven bring a youthful humour to a production with such serious subject matter. Starvation is juxtaposed with giggles over nose picking; they mock the women across the border, who 'have moustaches.' Meanwhile, the stage is like a sinister playground; childlike in construct but venemous in symbolism. A cat's cradle is made from coat hooks for the children's belongings – these are tripwires set up to eliminate movement. Glossy black balloons, glinting in the stage lights, are symbolic of the bombs which will shatter the ceiling and claim so many innocent lives.

Many will question whether this show is appropriate for such young audiences. Children, though, have a vast capacity for processing unthinkable horrors in a way that adults don't always give them credit for; in the face of real war and terror, they have often shown incredible strength. By paying homage to this fact, Us / Them is a show that shatters preconceptions – its examination is brave and important. 

Run ended; Us / Them was part of Edinburgh International Children's Festival