Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
March 8, 2018

The dark stage is almost empty; a blank canvas awaiting a picture. The girl and boy who are to paint the scene, wander in, and immediately beguile us. It may be the fragility of their youth, highlighted with braided hair, balloons, and a sunshine yellow turtleneck, or the carefree absence of shoes, or perhaps it’s because we know they are about to endure the worst three days of their brief lives.

Author and director Carly Wijs has drawn from the heinous Beslan school siege of September 2004 to create this challenging show as an impetus for adults to discuss the topic of terrorism with children. Here, the show succeeds. This is nothing, if not a conversation starter.

By linguistic definition, we are in the ‘Us’ camp before we even meet the ‘Them’, but it is not semantics that cements our hour-long subscription to Team ‘Us’. Throughout the humorous and harrowing tale, the story arc is underpinned by a dichotomy as common as it is ancient – good versus evil, and we are on the side of the children.

Spatial familiarity and playfulness between the pair intrigues, and a beautifully delivered statistical who’s who paints a picture of the town outside the walls of their temporary jail: the life they came from and hope to return to. The rhythm of this initial dialogue is excellent. We are given an informative tour of the school in which they are trapped, with nothing more complicated than a piece of chalk.

So far, we have endearing child storytellers, an incredible hostage situation complete with death, dehydration and imminent danger. And, thanks to the tractor-owning fathers of the town, and the fleeting mention of a secret cellar, we have what we all want – a glimpse of escape. Just when we’re hooked, we get strung up, or rather, the stage does. It takes the scene from two planes to, well, something that could have been proposed by Euclid, or inspired by the Catherine Zeta-Jones scene in Entrapment. The mind-boggling construction that takes place before us, and the physicality of moving through it, is remarkable. When the prismatic contrivance is removed, the role it played moves even more starkly into focus.

Performed in English by two actors from the Brussels-based art house for younger audiences, BRONKS, Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven give exceptional performances. As our guides through this heart-wrenching tale, we are enthralled throughout by their pathos, choreography, and flawless teamwork. The acting is so convincing, that anxiety set in more than once, as we expected the show to be halted for medical reasons. This is a masterfully told drama.

As the body count increases, so does the dramatic tension, and we know, either from history, or supposition, that something has to give. But when the theme from Mission: Impossible sounds, it jars like a parody and risks a slide into the farcical. We’re quickly back on track with several false endings, which are conceptually solid, but somehow leave us hanging, not in tragedy, but with a distinct absence of resolve. We add it to the list of discussion points.

Peripheral audience seating may explain lost dialogue, which, due to total investment in the production, led to disappointment. Music, mostly aided the storytelling atmosphere, but at times overpowered the dialogue.

Us/Them is an original and brave piece, utilising a unique perspective to try and make sense of the utterly incomprehensible.

Us/Them plays until March 12