Adelaide Festival: Us/Them
How do you speak to children about atrocity? Given that childhood is no insulation against violence, how can we not talk about it?
Carly Wijs’s play Us/Them, commissioned by the Belgian theatre company BRONKS, specifically asks this question. Wijs and her collaborators have crafted an ingenious exploration of the kind of act that is often described as “unspeakable”: the 2004 Beslan School Siege, during which at least 334 people, many of them children, died.
In her program note, Wijs asks how we speak about the “unspeakable”, how we can make sense of “incomprehensible” acts such as terrorism. It’s an interesting question. The rhetoric of incomprehensibility often surrounds atrocity, an expression of its trauma: but I’m not entirely sure that acts such as terrorism are “incomprehensible”. People speak of them all the time. People comprehend them in many ways. Is it more that we resist or blank out the metastasising realities of their horror? Who can truly internalise all these pathologies of pain?
In recent years, our media has saturated us with atrocities. Even so, there are so many that don’t even reach our newspapers, such as the worsening (again) violence in the Central African Republic. Those that do become a kind of numbing wallpaper of violent death and maiming: IS beheading and murders, US-backed Saudi bombings and famine in Yemen, the on-going horror of Syria.
The Russian war on Chechnya. I remember, many years ago, staring at a photograph of what had once been Chechnya’s major city, Grozny. It was a flat line of rubble. A rabbit couldn’t have hidden there.
The Beslan attack, one bloody episode in a long history of Caucasian violence, stands out for its horror. (How does one possibly rank atrocity? Do you make a special category, “schools”? There was the 2014 Taliban attack on an army-run school in Peshawar, for instance, in which 141 people died; the Boko Haram capture in 2014 of 246 Nigerian schoolgirls, or Anders Breivik’s shooting of 77 people at Utoye in Norway, in which 55 of the dead were under 18. In the US, there have been 14 fatal school shootings so far this year, including the 17 dead at Parkland, Florida.)
“As adults,” says Wijs, “we are conditioned by our overly dramatised perspective by the media, by ourselves, into black and white thinking: ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’. The refreshing thing about a child’s gaze is that it’s not coloured by the need for ‘dramatic interpretation’, because that view of things does not connect to their own lives.”
Again, I’m not sure that’s true. Children make dramas, stories and fantasies all the time, as Wijs herself notes. And children like things to be ordered, they like to know who is “good” and who is “bad”. Even in the middle of anarchy. Even during a siege. During the three-day Beslan school siege, many of the adults kept the children from panicking by telling them that they were making a film and that soon it would be over.
One thing we do is talk about numbers. Wijs picks this up as a defence against sentiment, or what she calls “dramatisation”. We are told the population of Beslan, the numbers of butchers, farmers, mothers, fathers and children; how many Wii consoles can be bought with the 15,000 rouble compensation that the child survivors of Beslan were given. Perhaps measuring things gives an illusion of order, a sense that everything counts.
Wijs describes the siege, from the eruption of dozens of terrorists (no one is still quite sure how many there were, although Wijs says there were 35) into the ceremonies for the first day of the school year, to its bloody climax, when Russian security forces attacked and the bombs that the terrorists had set up around the school gymnasium exploded. The ceiling collapsed and the entire room went up in an inferno. In between these events, approximately 1100 people – mostly children and their mothers – were kept hostage in a stifling room, without being permitted to eat and drink.
There’s no denying that Us/Them is extremely accomplished theatre-making. It’s told through a combination of physical theatre and poetic narration, sometimes fractured by hallucinations caused by extreme thirst, and illustrated with chalk diagrams sketched by the performers, Gytha Parmentier and Roman van Houtven.
The story is told obliquely, and the production, directed by Wijs, is very careful to avoid sensationalism: the narrative of the first attack, for instance, is inaudible behind a Caucasian folk song. It’s always told from a child’s point of view, with the performers enacting the voices of two child hostages. One of them survives, the other does not. The production carefully refuses the easy sentimentality that so often surrounds the suffering of children.
All the same, I felt a nagging discomfort afterwards. There are always difficult questions around making art out of real events, especially traumatic events like Beslan, which affected people who are still alive. Did Wijs, I wonder, talk to the children involved? What was her method of research? I did some googling, which mostly left me none the wiser. But I did find that this play was, at least initially, inspired by the BBC documentary Children of Beslan. So, directly after seeing the play, I watched the documentary.
In Children of Beslan, some of the survivors describe the siege and its aftermath in their own words. It’s riveting, deeply affecting viewing. And yes, as Wijs says, these kids are very direct in their descriptions of what they remember. But they are also very articulate about what they felt about it, during the siege and afterwards.
There’s the girl who compulsively draws pictures of the terrorists and then burns them, their images curling and twisting just as the burning people did. It is, she explains, her revenge. “It’s impossible to get enough revenge,” she says. There’s the boy sadly reflecting that he has fewer friends now, and that “even little boys became adults” after the siege. There’s another boy, whose father was killed, who says: “My greatest dream is to go to Chechnya and kill those terrorists, to avenge my father.”
At which point you remember that the Caucasus is vendetta country, and part of the history of this siege is vendetta. Many of the hostage-takers were not Chechnyan: they were from Ingushetia, a neighbouring country which isn’t mentioned at all in this play. The gym in which the Beslans were imprisoned was used in 1992 to imprison Ingush during an ethnic cleansing. Does this fact, or the war on Chechnya, make the atrocity of Beslan more comprehensible?
It does endow it with a bloody logic that is often erased in the reporting of these events.
It certainly makes everything more complicated.
There was very little of this complication in Us/Them. When Chechnyans were mentioned, they were described as paedophiles; Chechnyan women, we’re told, are ugly and hairy. This is left contextless, although clearly we are supposed to note its irony, to pick up the hint of what that prejudice means. I couldn’t see how this destabilised the notions of Us and Them that the play claims to undo. Wijs does show how iconic media images are shaped, falsifying the events on the ground: but surely this play is another kind of falsification? How real is this child’s point of view, if it is written by an adult?
Mostly I wondered if this production, in its desire to avoid “over-dramatisation”, ends up failing to pay tribute to the honesty and clarity of the Beslan children. For the children in the BBC documentary are indeed very clear, often in deeply discomforting ways. Avoiding sentimentality is not the same as glossing emotional realities: the notion that children might, somehow, not really perceive an event as adults might, or that they have special insights, is itself sentimental. Us/Them might be the beginning of a conversation about terrorism and trauma, but I fear that too much has been left out.
Us/Them by Carly Wijs, created with Thomas Vantuycom, dramaturgy by Mieka Versyp. Design by Stef Stessel, lighting by Thomas Clause, sound by Peter Brughmans. BRONKS, Belgium. Performed by Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven. Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre. Adelaide Festival. Until March 12. Bookings.
Alison Croggon flew to Adelaide as a media guest of the Adelaide Festival