Unfeigned and candid

Jacob Piccinino and Maria Buckle in Us/Them. Photo: Lisa Attard

Jacob Piccinino and Maria Buckle in Us/Them. Photo: Lisa Attard

The Beslan Siege started on September 1,, 2014, lasted three days and ended with 334 people killed. On the first day of school in the autonomous republic of Beslan, in Russia, School Number One was stormed by armed Chechen militants  demanding  freedom for the Chechen state who imprisoned and eventually massacred children, teachers, parents and guardians.

These facts are what the media reported, but no one knows what really went on inside the school gym where everyone was held hostage at gunpoint.

In 2014, Belgian writer Carly Wijs brought this tragic event to the stage  with two actors playing a boy and a girl telling a wonderous tale with a childish, pointed naiveté. In this production by The Shrinking Violets these parts were played by Jacob Piccinino and Maria Buckle with so much childish enthusiasm as to completely suspend the audience’s disbelief that they were not watching an actual recounting.

Piccinino and Buckle treated the performance with respect. They displayed perfect timing, sometimes working as one, a mastery of physical theatre that throughout the performance conveyed more than any words could ever convey.

Rarely have I found myself so caught up in a performance that I wished it would never end. The story bewitched me, and left me in tears in its last minutes. All emotions were unfeigned and candid. The audience was transfixed as the actors talk candidly of what they were witnessing, not realising the full impact of what was happening.

The performance did not start and end on the stage. While the performance space in The Splendid was bare, it served as a blank canvas on which the children’s imagi­nation reconstruct their memories, mostly in coloured chalk.

The audience found itself im­mersed in the performance the moment it stepped into the space. As the audience made its way up the stairs, it was met with a realistic school setting, with books, children’s jackets and shoes, playful trinkets, toys, and so on. But the landscape changed with devastating effect during the performance.

US/Them was much more than a performance; it was a study in memory and the way children interpret memories and traumatic experiences, and of how different peoples are brainwashed to see the other as an enemy and as evil, without the whole story told. It is, furthermore, a study in freedom.

Is freedom obtained through wrongful imprisonment of others really freedom? Girl illustrates  what the demands of the Chechen militants were, and shows that what they wanted was freedom; Freedom from military actions and freedom from Russia, an oppressor. She asks, rightfully confused, “why do they want this from me?”

US/Them raises questions about national identity, cultural oppression, media coverage and the cost of human life in the name of freedom. Although the Beslan Siege is the one treated in detail here, if one were to look beyond the details, it could easily apply to all innocent lives of civilians lost every day in the name of freedom and oppression.

This is one of those performances that I believe could run for a long time. It is a splendour to watch, a joy to experience and, even though you may walk out a little broken, you will want to watch it over and over again.

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