The 2004 Beslan school siege is remembered for the deaths of more than 330 people including 186 children, after a Russian school was seized by Chechen rebels. But the Belgian creators of a play, Us/Them, which relives the atrocity through the eyes of two children, say recent attacks have brought the story closer to home.
The actress Gytha Parmentier has now played Us/Them in three languages.
When the play opened in 2014 she was speaking in her native Flemish. Later she had to translate into French the words of her character – a young girl who dies in the Beslan siege.
Now she’s making the one-hour piece work in English opposite Roman Van Houtven, the only other member of cast.
Last year the play was a hit at the Edinburgh Festival and it has now arrived at London’s National Theatre.
“Acting in English, Roman and I had to learn to move our mouths in a very different way,” she said. “But acting in a different language gives a new juiciness to what’s in the script.”
That script is by Carly Wijs, who also directs. She recalls the spark for the play came when her eight year-old son mentioned news coverage he’d just seen of the terror attack at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in 2013.
“Godfried had been watching the report on the children’s news and I was struck by the way he described it. He spoke in a way which was almost aloof – at eight you’re just becoming aware of things which are on your planet but not really of your own world of home and family.
“Then Bronks, which is a fantastic production company in Brussels, asked me for a theatre idea for children. So I thought I would break a taboo by writing about Beslan while borrowing Godfried’s tone and his very objective manner.”
In Belgium Wij/Zij has been listed as suitable for children of nine and above; in London the National Theatre pitches Us/Them for young people aged 12 and over.
The highly physical production is made for touring and the Dorfman stage at the National is almost bare apart from balloons and string.
The production avoids the off-putting cuteness which can trip up adult actors impersonating young children. The result is heart-breaking yet somehow heart-warming too.
The show may not strike theatregoers in advance as an obvious excursion for kids. But it’s an unexpectedly charming hour in the theatre perfect for family viewing. However, the National has mainly programmed performances late in the evening which may be a bad call.
Wijs says her view of the events of 2004 was influenced by one TV documentary in particular.
“There was a beautiful BBC programme called Children of Beslan which was helpful: they spoke to many survivors. But our play isn’t a documentary. It has to work for children who know nothing of Beslan and also for their parents who remember all that went on.”
Parmentier says there are clear differences between how children and grown-ups react.
“Adults tend to laugh and cry in a different way: often the laughter is in relief when they think something horrible is about to happen on the stage and it doesn’t.
“I think parents automatically work out a narrative arc in their minds but children are happy to switch their attention from one thing to another.”
Wijs thinks for children almost the most horrifying thing is when the girl has to undress to her underwear because it’s getting hot and stuffy in the school gymnasium.
“To them it’s a nightmare but I suspect adults barely register the moment.”
The play pre-dates last March’s terror attacks in Brussels in which a total of 35 people died and hundreds were injured. Wijs lived in the Molenbeek district, a focus in the city of Islamist radicalisation.
“We haven’t changed the play because of those bombings but if the Brussels attacks had come first I wonder if I could have created the play. I’ve just done another play in Brussels which is full of light and comedy – it’s a reaction to the depressing times we live in.
But both women say they haven’t ignored recent violence closer to home.
“In 2015 in Belgium we had a performance in Namur in (French-speaking) Wallonia, a few days after the Bataclan attack in Paris”, says Parmentier.
“We and the theatre thought hard about whether we should cancel: would it be too hard to watch a play about so many people being killed? But instead the theatre arranged an audience discussion after the show and people were full of questions about what they had just seen. I think the play helped some of them process what had happened in Paris.”
Us/Them is playing at the National Theatre until 18 February.