Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

16/03/2018 - 18/03/2018

New Zealand Festival of the Arts 2018

Production Details

“Frequently playful, sometimes surprisingly jokey – and ultimately desperately moving” – The Guardian

This “astonishingly assured” (The Guardian) drama comes to New Zealand following sell-out seasons at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and London’s National Theatre.

Based on the experiences of children who lived through the 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis, Us/Them – the break-out hit show from Brussels youth theatre company BRONKS – portrays extreme events but through a child’s eyes. Despite the potentially harrowing subject matter, the experience is naively wonderful and unsettlingly funny. 

Two children sketch a map onto a wide bare stage. They are intent, urgent. It has to be accurate. Part of the staggering achievement of Us/Them is that its two performers are able to start with a simple physical act of abstract map-making and open up an entire world of the mind. Thrilling, often humorous and with a deft lightness of touch.

 Circa Theatre
Friday 16 Mar – Sunday 18 Mar 2018
+ 1.30pm Sat & Sun 
Recommended for ages 12+
GA (seated) $49.00
Pricing excludes service fee
More about ticket categories


In 2013, I was asked to create a performance for BRONKS, a Belgian theatre company for young audiences. The terrorist attack in a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, had just occurred; I had read about it in the newspapers and watched footage of it on television, but I had not discussed it with my then eight-year-old son.

But he had seen it for himself on the news and he came to tell me. The way he talked about the attack was very specific: objective, with the ability to overlook the emotional implications. He handled the news factually, as a sequence of events, and without connecting it to a judgement. It was as if the horror for him as an eight-year-old child had a completely different meaning because it was not possible to relate it to his own life. A child, unlike an adult, does not think: “That could have been me.”

I started to think about another horrifying act of unspeakable violence – the Beslan school siege of September 2004 – and how this dark episode in history could combine with the thoughts and impressions of children about such acts, to make a piece of theatre for young people. 

If you type “Beslan” into Google and look at the pictures, it is riveting. You cannot let go of the horror. The fact that it involves children makes that feeling even stronger. But how can we put such indescribable acts on stage? How can we make something that is totally incomprehensible, understandable? And isn’t it taboo to make a piece of theatre about terrorism, for audiences that include children?

Ultimately, no subject is taboo for children. It is just important that you use the right words. Discussing the topic of terrorism with children is a challenge, but it can be done.

Why Beslan? The siege took place at a school, and the first day of school is something to which every child can relate. The fact that the terrorists chose that specific day and location to stage their attack reflects a profound perversion – but I did not want to talk about that. That’s just an ongoing debate among adults: why is this happening? A child cannot and does not have to answer that question. That is the privilege of being a child.

Whilst doing research, I came across a BBC documentary called Children of Beslan, in which the story of the siege is told by some of the children who were held hostage. These children gave a factual account of those events, just as my son had done with the Nairobi attack. Aloof, almost. Which, of course, does not mean that these children do not have an enormous trauma to process. Unfortunately, the ramifications of what happened to them will probably hit them when they grow up. But the only thing that seemed to count for the children in the documentary was that the story was told as accurately as possible.

It was because of this documentary that I decided to tell the story entirely from the perspective of the children: one boy and one girl. There is a difference between their perspectives, but they both try to be precise in their accounts of what happened during the three-day siege.

Sometimes children flee from horror, straight into the comforting arms of imagination. In the documentary, a boy fantasised that Harry Potter would arrive wearing his invisibility cloak and kill the terrorists one by one. Others fantasised that they were part of a film and none of it was really happening to them.

Almost 1200 people, including 777 children, were held hostage during the siege. Outside the school there must have been several thousand people. And yet, in the news footage, Google searches and documentaries, you keep seeing the same group of about 50 photogenic people. In all of the footage that has survived, it’s the scenes of greatest desperation and devastation that play on a loop.

As adults, we apparently have a need for an overly dramatised perspective, which leads us into black and white thinking: “Us” versus “Them”. The refreshing thing about a child’s gaze is that it is not coloured by the need for dramatic interpretation, because that view of things does not connect to their own life. And if it does connect to their own life, it is tackled through imagination. This is what Us/Them is about. 

Writer & Director   Carly Wijs
Created with   Thomas Vantuycom
Designer   Stef Stessel
Lighting Designer   Thomas Clause
Sound Designer   Peter Brughmans
Dramaturge   Mieke Versyp

Gytha Parmentier
Roman Van Houtven

Youth , Theatre ,

1 hr

An amazing piece of theatre about appalling events

Review by Ewen Coleman 22nd Mar 2018

When children are part of a group of hostages taken in a terrorist siege, as nearly 700 were in the Beslan Massacre in Russia in 2004 by Chechen separatists, the events, including the trauma suffered, perceived by the children can be far different than those reported in the media.

And it was this idea that Carly Wijs used when asked to create a piece of youth theatre for BRONKS, a Belgium arthouse based in Brussels and which was performed at Circa Theatre as part of the final weekend of this year’s NZ Festival.

Under Wijs’ direction, two performers, Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven, have created an amazing piece of theatre that encapsulates perfectly the appalling events that happened over three days of terror. [More


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A unique perspective

Review by John Smythe 17th Mar 2018

At the end of Us/Them my ten year-old great nephew, Geronimo LaHood, is bemused that its age recommendation is twelve plus. Here’s what he’s emailed me this morning:  

“I thought the show was great, and even though it was a true story it makes you want to think it was made up, it looked so well planned out with terrorists and bombs and dehydration. Every new idea linked up with others until at the end, where they suddenly burst out with meaning. And there were multiple humorous scenes, but they didn’t overthrow the whole story. Overall, I think it was a very nice mix of humour, emotions and storytelling, and in my opinion there is no need for it to be twelve plus. It should be ten plus.”

Enough said? Probably. Nevertheless here’s my more aged (re)view.

What is now recorded in history as The Beslan school siege, or massacre, of 2004 is ingeniously dramatised in Us/Them by Carly Wijs, “entirely from the perspective of the children: one boy and one girl”. Her writer’s note explains how she came to write it so I won’t repeat all that here. It opened in 2014, sold out at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe and played London’s National Theatre last year.

Despite Wijs’ explanation for the title, I see Us/Them as referring primarily to Child/Adult, although it also relates to the radical political thinking that generates events such as this. And given the Girl keeps describing the men from Grozny (capital of Chechnya) as “paedophiles, and their mothers have moustaches”, it’s clear their view of the world, albeit conditioned by adults, can be ‘black and white’ too, as well as enriched by fantasy.

From an adult perspective, Us/Them is an absorbing exercise in divining the subtext – what has actually happened here, and why? – as well as tuning in to the coping mechanisms of the profoundly affected children. In this case their ‘post mortem’ telling of the tale is literally post mortem for one, hence the non-naturalistic and highly imaginative manner of their presentation.

Every story needs a hook and Us/Them has a whole wall of them: a green wall which becomes a blackboard. Before that it’s the black floor on which the Girl (Gytha Parmentier) and Boy (Roman Van Houtven) draw a neat floorplan of the school gymnasium and adjacent main building at School Number One in the town of Beslan (See Wikipedia for more detail). “Nothing much happens here,” they say.

From each hook (all but one) a line is drawn, each representing an aspect of the story they are telling. Intersecting plotlines and themes, perhaps? They criss-cross the square acting space chaotically, not as the proverbial ‘tangled web’ of deception but as a complex, three-dimensional, geometric construct of straight lines, each one representing a simple truth. Attempting to make sense of the whole, or draw the components into some more ordered state, is as futile as trying to align the myriad geopolitical agendas that scar our daily news reports.

Yet, in their own way, the children are trying to put things in order. In compiling their report, the Girl and Boy – whose performance skills and rapport are sublime – recall the heat, discomfort and fainting, and fill the gaps in their knowledge and understanding with perfectly rational explanations and expectations, for instance of how the adults in town will respond to this emergency. Flights of imagination and fantasising also permeate their responses and point to their differences: sausages and sauce for him; a flying giraffe for her.

They sing and dance, too, despite having to sit still with their hands in the air. Although the ‘real’ world is riddled with things they are not allowed to do, when their souls are in limbo they are free to do anything.  

Us/Them, then, brings a unique perspective to the atrocities that continue to assault humanity. It offers no answers but, in our individual and collective quest for resilience, it may help to restore our consciousness of what it is to be a child. 


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