Flick through the programme of the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival and you’ll see an enticing line-up of shows covering such hot topics as super heroes, women in space and balance (for toddlers). It looks colourful and inventive, as befits one the world’s leading events of its kind, but it doesn’t make you stop in your tracks. Not, that is, until you get to Us/Them.
Created by the Belgian company Bronks, Us/Them is a two-hander about one of the most awful terrorist atrocities of recent times. This was the 2004 siege of a school in Beslan in which 1,100 people, most of them children, were held by Islamic militants fighting with Russia over Chechen independence. It ended after three days, but not before the deaths of at least 334.
For those of us brought up on Basil Brush and Sesame Street, it sounds an unlikely topic for a piece of children’s theatre. More unlikely still is that, although the festival advertises it for the 10-15 age range, writer and director Carly Wijs reckons it’s best for the over eights.
And she’s not wrong. When Us/Them played in Edinburgh in 2016, it won a Scotsman Fringe First. Critic David Pollock called it “dazzlingly confident and utterly absorbing.” For such a grim subject, it is staged with wit and theatrical flair, telling a story from the perspective of the children involved in a way that is disarmingly matter of fact.
As adults, we watch with an understanding of politics, tragedy and death, a perspective that younger viewers simply don’t have. They’re more likely to engage in the pupils’ squabbles and boasts as they map out the details of the tragedy.
“All adults think, ‘What a gruesome story – why would you do that for children?’” says Wijs, delighted the show is making a return to Scotland. “But you have to tell children the most awful things: that daddy’s going to move somewhere else, that they’re going to move house to a different country where nobody speaks their language… yet we find ways to explain it to them.”
Her starting point was the later terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in 2013. Although she hadn’t spoken to her eight-year-old son about it, he had seen it on the children’s news and knew something about it. “The way he spoke about it was very distant,” she recalls. “It had nothing to do with his world, with something he could understand. But I think we actually can talk about these horrible things to children if we find the right tone and the right way of talking about it.”
She adds: “I think you can talk to children about anything.”
Her next inspiration was the BBC documentary Children of Beslan, which featured interviews with survivors of the attack. “They all had this childlike, distant way of talking,” she says. “When they grow up they will realise the consequences of what happened to them, but at that point, they were still children and they really couldn’t grasp what it was. The way they spoke about it was: ‘Yeah, then we went up and we hid in this closet and then the terrorists came and they took my dad out and then they shot him…’”
Her aim was to capture something of that innocent perspective. Of course, she knows what a sensitive subject she’s dealing with. Only two days after the attack on the Bataclan concert hall in Paris in 2015, Us/Them was scheduled for a performance in front of 350 in Charleroi, Belgium. Matters were sensitive not only because the scale of the atrocity, but also because of the suicide bombers’ connections to Belgium. The company debated cancelling the show, but decided to press ahead. Although most of the audience chose to stay at home, the 25 who turned up found it cathartic.
“The Paris attacks were such a traumatising event,” says Wijs. “After the show, all the mothers were crying because we were so upset at what had happened. But at the after-show discussion, the children’s questions were exactly the same: ‘Are you in love in real life?’ ‘Who’s the famous football player?’ There’s something comforting in that because you realise as a parent when you’re sitting next to your child, you’re seeing something that cannot touch them. You can let go a bit more because the world they live in is different. It’s your job to make sure your world is opened up slowly.”
The result is a show that splits audiences even as it engages them all. “Parents see a different performance from children,” she says. “For children, the most horrifying moment is when the girl takes off her clothes and she’s in her underwear. That’s your nightmare when you’re in school. They see the problems with maths, they see they problems when it’s hot and there’s lots of people, but death is not in their dictionary.”
The Edinburgh International Children’s Festival runs until 2 June. Us/Them is at The Studio, Edinburgh, from 29-31 May.