There’s simply no way to describe Us/Them without being embarrassingly reductive. Explaining the work requires decomposing it into its separate, admittedly incongruous elements. But its unique alchemy is their irreducible synthesis.
The show, which is a co-production of BRONKS and Richard Jordan Productions and comes to Mirvish from London’s National Theatre, simply needs to be experienced.
Nonetheless, and at the aforementioned risk of reductiveness, here goes . . .
The subject of Us/Them is the 2004 hostage crisis in Beslan, Russia. Chechen terrorists took more than 1000 people hostage, including hundreds of children. The situation and the outcome were gruesome. I didn’t recall the exact details before seeing the production – and upon reflection, this may be the best way to experience this work.
There are just two actors. Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven play two of the children taken hostage, and summon other roles as the story unfolds. They are remarkable in what are physically and emotionally taxing roles. As Us/Them opens, the two work to establish the school setting. They conjure it in precise verbal detail while sketching out the grounds. Setting the scene is important to them, even urgent . . . and yet, they are children. They recite details in unison, except when they differ or get distracted . . . because memory, it seems, is not perfect.
An underlying seriousness manifests in their physical intensity. At times, their movements are coordinated. At others, they crawl over and around each other while they sketch. Their gestures are big and bold, as are most of their speeches. And everything – movement, speech – flows continuously like a deeply compelling manifested stream of consciousness that is motivated by a critical – but challenged – need to remember.
This remarkable opening is like winding up a music box or pulling the pin on a grenade. The rest launches from there, and it’s impossible to take your eyes off it. They recount the story of the traumatic events at the school, but not as a linear re-telling. They are children, so even as they recount the worst of what happened, they can be distracted or sidetracked into play . . . little mischiefs and little jokes. A series of moments accrete: flashes that help us realize how horrible this situation was as it stretched on for days: the heat, the physical privation, the actions of the terrorists, and the boredom and unbearable tension of hundreds of children.
We’re inside a mindscape, so the set of chalk, string and balloons is not realistic. And the forward propulsion of the continuous choreography – which has the intensity and rigour of a dance show – relentlessly reveals new elements, like some endlessly unspooling thread.
The show’s 60 fraught, freighted minutes are immersive and powerful. You can’t take your eyes off Parmentier and Van Houtven. And when it comes, the ending is sudden. It’s perhaps not exactly when you expect – just like the whole experience is not what you are expecting when you learn about it.
Afterwards, the most fascinating thing for me was to reflect on how Carly Wijs wrote the play for children aged 10 and up. She was watching her eight-year-old son process a different terrorist horror that he had seen discussed on the news. She saw that he couldn’t process it – that he could not connect it to his own life. Yet she felt strongly that “discussing the topic of terrorism with children is a challenge, but it can be done. And it must be done.” Wijs created this play – with its unique point of view and its mix of humour and heartrending pathos – as a vehicle to enable such a conversation.
So (and this seems unusual for an Off-Mirvish show), Us/Them is appropriate, even encouraged for children ten and older. Which makes it a shame that the Toronto run concludes at the start of March Break, and that current job action by public school teachers will prevent class visits before the break.
So my advice is this. Go see it for yourself. If you have kids, take them. Have the conversation that Us/Them opens up. I expect it will be just as fascinating and unpredictable as the show itself.
News You Can Use
What: Us/Them (Canadian Premiere), written and directed by Carly Wijs│a BRONKS and Richard Jordan Production│Presented by Mirvish Productions
Cast: Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven
Who: Audiences 10 years of age and older
When: On stage until March 15, 2020; running time: 60 minutes (no intermission)
Where: CAA Theatre, 651 Yonge Street, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: mirvish.com
© Scott Sneddon, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2020