Us/Them is a chilling on-stage enactment of the Beslan school siege

Most theatre about children is uplifting, feel-good fare. Carly Wijs's show bucks the trend.

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Generally in theatre, the feel-good factor rises as the age of the characters and performers goes down: the latest mega-hit musical, School of Rock, is a perfect example of this. It is the daring disconnect between a dramatic form associated with cuteness – and content of acute horror – that creates the impact of Us/Them, brought to the National Theatre by a Flemish-language children’s theatre company. It was the must-see success at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

The play’s performers, Gytha Parmentier and Roman van Houtven, are recent graduates of Belgian drama schools but are required to play characters even younger. They embody two of the 777 pupils who endured a three-day siege in 2004 by Islamist terrorists at School No 1 in the Russian Federation town of Beslan. The events – and controversies involving the response by Russia’s security forces and the reliability of reporting – led Vladimir Putin, in his first stint as president, to claim powers that shaped the brutal quasi-democracy over which he now presides again.

As the hour-long show proceeds, a sparse initial setting is simply but chillingly decorated. Eighteen black balloons float above the stage. Ibsen famously said that when theatregoers see a gun they know it will go off before the play is over, and, certain that these birthday-party props will burst, we start to brace ourselves for when and how.

The actors chalk on the stage a floor-plan of the school, casually indicating staircases and hiding places that later seem heart-breaking, before using long loops of string to fill the acting space with a complex, geometric shape. This dense web represents both the mounting oppressiveness of the school gymnasium – as oxygen depletes but the sweat and excreta mount – and, terrifyingly, bomb-wires.

Text-based performance and “physical” theatre are often in conflict on the modern stage, but Us/Them, written and directed by Carly Wijs, intelligently meshes the styles. There are devastating words (“I will pretend to be two terrorists,” Parmentier says) and also numbers, with van Houtven, as if in some dark Sesame Street special, doing a series of chalkboard sums to calculate the likelihood of escape or survival, based on the quantity of terrorists and of hostages. And yet, between these spoken sequences, and often during them, the piece is also exhilaratingly choreographic, the two actors soaring, falling and entwining, variously enacting fear, hope, death and afterlife.

Most unforgettably, they act out the global TV coverage of bodies being removed from the school. To the soundtrack music chosen by broadcasters (Chopin in France, Barber’s inevitable “Adagio” in the US), they mime corpses and dripping blood, stuttering their movements for those networks that imposed slow-motion on the footage.

It may seem strange that a dramatisation of a Russian atrocity should come to us in translation from the Flemish, but Belgium has found itself in the front line of contemporary terrorism. An Isis attack last March killed 32 people in Brussels, the ­embarkation station for the Islamist who opened fire on a French train in August 2015, and the city from which that November’s massacres in Paris are believed to have been plotted.

The piece provokes many thoughts – whether and when such a thing might happen here, but also the reflection that there might be more empathy in the UK and US towards Russia’s actions against Isis in Syria and elsewhere if 777 children had been held hostage for three days at a school in Westminster or New York.

One of the artistic director Rufus Norris’s innovations at the NT has been to use the building more as a sort of “live YouTube” for hosting short runs under the banner Limited Editions, featuring plays that have come from, or will go, elsewhere. Us/Them is a perfect showcase. The other standout show on now at the National is the new version of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler by Patrick Marber, directed by the Belgian Ivo van Hove. Perhaps there should be a special trophy for Belgium at the end-of-year theatre awards.

At the Dorfman Theatre, London SE1, until 18 February. Details: nationaltheatre.org.uk

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. 

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West