Sunday 7 August 2016

Us/Them – Summerhall, Edinburgh

[seen 07/08/16]

Us/Them is a piece of theatre for young people (9 and up) about the Beslan High School massacre.

It’s on at 10am in the morning.

Feel free to digest this for a bit.

*Of course* it’s made by Belgians. I mean, apparently most of the theatre worth seeing in Edinburgh this year is made in Belgium/by Belgians, but there’s an extra *of courseness* here. On the continent (yeah, post-Brexit we’re bringing that phrase back), they treat their children a bit like grown-ups. It’s part of the reason we had to leave, of course. Dangerous nonsense. Expecting *children* to think. Hell, we don’t even expect most grown-ups to do that in Britain, so fuck knows how they cope with thinking children in a country the size of Belgium. By overfunding their arts, apparently; that’s how.

But I digress.

Us/Them is a piece of theatre in which two performers essentially narrate a child’s-eye view (two childrens’ eyes’ views, in fact) of the three day hostage-taking/siege by Chechen separatists in a North Ossetian school, demanding freedom for Chechnya, and the freeing of political prisoners held by Russian government forces.

The genius of the piece, when it is genius, is the sheer number of levels on which it manages to function simultaneously. It *almost* even manages to surmount the hardest question about the piece, which is: why make this piece about that massacre now? In a lot of ways, for EU nations, the Beslan massacre is a kind of zero sum game. “We” condemn “Islamic” “terrorism” (although one could make an argument that Islam is secondary to the struggle for national independence in the case of Chechnya), and “we” condemn Russia for its cavalier attitude to living hostages (and children at that). “We” dislike and mistrust “Russia” (and indeed, we – the audience – are shown that these young Russians have already been taught that all Chechen men are paedophiles, that all Chechen women have moustaches, and all Chechen children leave school aged eight to go and work in manual labour), and yet we cannot countenance the murder of these miniature racists; nor the lengths the Chechens will go to, to gain their freedom; nor the lengths that the Russian military will go to to deny it them, sending a hard, clear, military message that not only will they not negotiate with terrorists, but also that hostage-taking as a tool of negotiation is futile. The Russian military will kill the hostages themselves, if need be.

It’s a lot to digest between 10am and 11am on a Sunday morning. But, my God, is it brilliantly laid out, put forward, performed, ironised, de-ironised, and re-ironised.

I mean, yes, a nine-year-old will be able to follow the basics (if not have vivid memories of the siege and the reporting around it, and a general appreciation of the wider situation around both secession from the Russian Federation, and “Islamic” terrorism). It’s incredibly vivid, without actually being too much, or too upsetting (perhaps), ((if these are even considerations)). And, beyond that, there’s a lot of wisdom and playfulness mixed in with the evocation of the underlying horror. It’s an unsettling piece. My inner English small-c conservative wonders about things like whether it’s right to make theatrical capital out of this senseless massacre, and whether it doesn’t put an improbably brave, cheery facade on what should just be three days of all out misery and suppressed panic followed by chillingly cynical slaughter. On the other hand, you appreciate the cleverness, the irony, the skill, the wry laughs unexpectedly summoned from the darkest situations. It’s still uncomfortable – for me, as an adult – perhaps all the more so for being grown up, and imagining the parents’ pain as well as that of the children, which is left relatively unspoken. Indeed, most of the suffering is understated and almost played-away, in a kind of child’s-eye post-rationalisation, that I’m not entirely sure I fully bought. (The piece almost suggests that playfulness heals such wounds and acts as a coping strategy, which other evidence suggests isn’t quite the full picture. It tests a hypothesis, certainly; but I’m not entirely sure I buy the implied conclusion.)

But, I’m just going on about my issues with it. I mean, that’s a fair representation of what ran through my head while I was watching too, but at the same time was that sheer rush of admiration for the makers of the piece, for the form, content and execution of the thing. I mean, it is pretty bloody remarkable.

[here I take a quick look at Lyn’s five-star review of the piece to see if I can just drop hers in in lieu of trying to explain the strange stage alchemy of how the thing operates, but no, instead I get fascinated all over again where she says:]
“The clue to this piece, and it’s examination of “othering”, is in its title. And it’s evident in the prattle of the children who believe that, 75 miles across the border, the landscape is as grim as a Grimm forest, all the women “have moustaches and work like horses”, and all the men are paedophiles.” 
I would suggest that there’s also another level of Others at work here, though; there’s “Us” in Western Europe, and there’s “Them” in Eastern Europe/Russia/North Ossetia/Chechnya. I think, to some extent (that ever-tiresome Facebook argument about which countries’ flags get to interfere with people’s profile pictures) the fact that this is such an “exotic” tragedy might be part of what makes it palatable? Would people be able to make this show about a tragedy that happened in their own country? And because of their own country’s military occupation of the country from which the “terrorists” (or partisans, or freedom-fighters) came? It’s this more difficult stuff that gets ducked. But then, the piece has the perfect defence – that it’s being narrated by children. They do explain that they definitely don’t understand the terrorism, even while, slyly (on the part of the author/s) giving away that their prejudices already make them unarmed, ideological combatants in Russia’s war on Chechnya.

But, yes. If you’re in Edinburgh, this is definitely worth going to see. Me trying to get to the bottom of the ethical can of worms it opens could go on indefinitely, so I’ll just stop.

Summerhall, Main Hall – 10.00am until Aug 28th (not Mondays)

Actors: Gytha Parmentier, Thomas Vantuycom/Roman Van Houtven
Director: Carly Wijs
Dramaturgy: Mieke Versyp
Scenery: Stef Stessel
Technician: Thomas Clause

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