Review: Us/Them

In this shocking contemporary drama, two children narrate their experiences of the 2004 Beslan school siege. Through a blend of naturalistic dialogue and devised movement, this play explores how children react to such traumatic events and process the anxieties that pervade society.

On September 1 2004, 34 Islamic extremists stormed School No. 1 in Beslan, Chechnya and took over 1,100 people hostage, many of them children, and demanded from Russia recognition of independence and the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. This lasted three days, on the third day of which the building was stormed by Russian forces with the use of tanks, incendiary rockets and other heavy weapons. This event resulted in a total of 334 deaths and approximately 783 non-fatal injuries.  The media response to this tragedy was outrage, and the event remains a notable example of the bloodshed and unnecessary death of innocents caused by excessive force and extremism.

Director Max Greenhalgh has done an exceptional job in portraying the abject horror of the play, principally by identifying and greatly exploiting its most important rhetorical technique: juxtaposition. With the event that the narrative describes, how could this not be of the utmost importance? Nevertheless, he
skilfully notices this cruel juxtaposition of innocent children and devastating political tragedy, and as such the set design, lighting, acting, and every other aspect of the play reflects this volatile combination of innocence and barbarism.

The main means of conveying this innocence is the use of a chalkboard as a floor, onto which the floor plan of the school is drawn initially, and the two children, played with exceptional talent by Romilly Carboni and Fionna Monk, scribble on intermittently while discussing the terrorist situation which they
are engulfed in. Though Greenhalgh admits that this was lifted from the original performance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, it remains an incredibly powerful device for conveying the sheer brutality of the children’s situation. They roll around in the chalk, and it begins to rub off on them, subtly
suggesting the debris of the bombs, as well as having fragments of their school plan, their past lives, literally mark their clothes, suggesting that the violence they experience will furthermore go on to mark them in life.

A particularly powerful moment occurs when the boy and girl begin to do sums according to the demands of the terrorists, suggesting the limited means these children have to comprehend the turbulent political situation which they are caught in the crossfires of. This is further reflected in the objects they use to represent their experience. Bombs become balloons, a schoolbook is used to weigh down their trigger, and a toy tractor is used to represent a car crash. This powerfully reflects their innocence as they have to use the only paradigms they know to understand their situation: toys and sums. It also suggests the hypocrisy of the warring states, as the squabbling of these children mirrors the fight between two forces which act as if they’re civilised and promote freedom, yet use children and force as a political means to get their way, the same way these children do. As the boy says in the piece: ‘The sums just don’t add up.’

In fact, the sheer chemistry between the two leads, Romilly Carboni and Fionna Monk, and the verisimilitude of their respective performances contributes a great deal to conveying the sheer horror of the situation. Their childishness is both endearing and horrifying, as it makes more vivid and increases the connection the audience has to the tragedy. We are forced to imagine the sheer unfairness of these innocents being caught in something unimaginable. Furthermore, the devised physical theatre was exceptional in its sheer energy and inventiveness, and there was a focus on simple staging and the interaction between the children and everyday objects which really reminded me of the exceptional work of physical theatre giants Frantic Assembly, particularly on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.

In fact, there were many parallels between these two plays, especially in their incredible use of lighting and technology to convey an unorthodox perspective coping with the difficulties of reality. Technical director Helena Trebichavska deserves a lot of credit for her ingenious use of lighting and music to
punctuate the horror and sadness of particular moments. The introduction of the bombs in particular was incredible, and has to be one of the tensest things I’ve ever seen performed, not least because of her lighting set up which surrounded and dwarfed the actors (though the actual popping of the balloons
was somewhat underwhelming!).

The use of a cathedral increased the sense of wrongness, and the juxtaposition between the antique, holy place, and the modern, naturalistic horror of the piece really emphasised the horror of the children as their familiar school surroundings slide into something cold and terrifying. I highly recommend this play, with its nuanced exploration of human hypocrisy as aggressive, self-interested states clash in violent apathy to the bloodshed around them, it is a technical, emotional, and theatrical marvel.

Pitch Productions is on at 8pm, 24th-25th November, Hild Bede Chapel. 

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