In 2004, the small town of Beslan in Russia was thrust into the global spotlight in the worst possible way.
Chechen terrorists held more than 1000 people hostage at a primary school, namely women and children, and by the time the three day siege ended, 334 people were dead. It's a horrific tragedy, and you would expect any play covering these events to reflect that.
So, imagine the surprise felt when Us/Them begins and people start laughing. You feel almost guilty doing so but it is an undeniable fact that this two-hander reflection on the tragedy is shockingly humorous.
Written and directed by Belgian Carly Wijs, Us/Them looks at the event from the perspective of two of the children caught in the event. Wijs' fellow Belgians Gytha Parmentier and Roman van Houtven are well past the ages they are playing yet make believable children, giving their characters youthful exuberance that blinds you to the reality. They effortlessly wear these characters' skins, their cheeky giggles and childish competitiveness, fully immersing you in their world.
The trio has been performing together for four years now (they are visiting the Auckland Arts Festival as part of a world tour) and that experience is clear throughout the play. Us/Them is highly physical, with intricate choreography requiring precise movements bordering on dancing.
The set, initially a series of black balloons and a wall adorned with hooks, is constructed entirely by Parmentier and van Houtven, who never break character or lose their synchronised rhythm even when flinging themselves across the stage. In the hands of less polished performers, this action could fail easily so it's a testament to their craft that any hiccups are barely noticeable.
The play was inspired by Wijs' son watching a different hostage situation with blase indifference. She aims, and succeeds, in replicating that here, as the two kids care as much about not being able to pick their noses as they do about the bombs dangling around them.
Us/Them truly succeeds because the children's deflective nature speaks to all ages. The final scenes, where the comedy becomes jet black, makes you question your own reactions to tragedies like Beslan and how we have all become, perhaps, a little indifferent.
You don't even have to know the backstory here to know the type of situation Wijs has written about, and that thought alone is enough to ensure Us/Them haunts you long after the final laugh leaves your throat.
Where and when: Rangatira, Q Theatre; until Sunday
Reviewer: Ethan Sills