Theatre review: Us/Them

Here in Beslan, everything is wonderful. The town is filled with butchers and bakers and supermarkets and this school is the best in the town.

Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven play amoung the detonators

Star rating: ****

Venue: Summerhall (Venue 26)

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It is School Number One, after all. But down the path and through the woods… that way lies Chechnya.

In Chechnya the children only stay in school until the age of eight, when they’re kicked out and sent to work, mostly in brothels for paedophiles. The children telling us this story don’t know what the word “paedophile” means, but it sounds funny.

That’s the perspective of a child, everything levelling out emotionally. They don’t have the capacity to register horror and cruelty in the same manner as adults, to separate simple bumps in normality from the onset of something truly chilling.

It’s a perspective which this dazzlingly confident and utterly absorbing retelling of the Beslan school siege of 2004 grasps a hold of; there is no political context, no mention of Russia’s violent struggle with Chechen rebel groups in the build-up to the siege. Only the story of one day when everyone went to school and nearly 400 of them didn’t return.

Director Carly Wijs of Brussels-based youth theatre group BRONKS presents this story masterfully, with captivating actor duo Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven eagerly sketching out the plan of their school in chalk across the floor and set.

They’re recognisably children, jostling for our attention when singing the school song (the ironically-titled A Wonderful New Future) and fantasising about an army of dads coming to save them as though this were a real-life action film. The lattice of string detonator wire is a playpark for physical theatre, all set to come crashing down, and the real horrors – the baking heat picking off survivor numbers by the hour, for example – are skimmed over.

The nature of innocence is challenged throughout, and by the end it appears bruised and battered, but alive.

Until 28 August. Today 10am.