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National Theatre Blog

In conversation with Us/Them director Carly Wijs

On Monday, following on from a sell-out run at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Us/Them opens in the Dorfman Theatre. The production, a response to the 2004 Beslan school siege, in which terrorists stormed a school and took hundreds of children hostage, looks to explore the individual way that children cope with traumatic situations.

Ahead of its opening, we spoke to Carly Wijs, who wrote and directs the piece.


Can you tell us about Us/Them?


Us/Them is an attempt to talk about something that is supposed to be an impossible subject for children. It’s an attempt to talk about it to everyone, actually.

I was asked if I wanted to do a show for BRONKS [the Belgian theatre company that produced Us/Them], and I had a few subjects in mind, and one of them was the Beslan siege. That was in 2014 – 10 years after the siege. At the same time as I was asked to create the piece, my son was eight and the Nairobi attacks had been in the news. He was watching the TV and he came up to me and said, ‘There was a shopping mall and the terrorists came and they shot someone’s mother. Can I go on the iPad?’ He was not able to understand the emotional implications of the information he had just given me, obviously. For him it was just information and the tragic events were just as important as the iPad or what was for dinner that night. That’s when I got the first idea [of how to approach it].


What was your own experience of the Beslan attacks?


I remember being glued to the television after the Beslan attacks. It was one of the most awful attacks ever, because it was a school and because it was the first day of school – people worldwide can relate to that. It was so horrifying. I think I thought of it as a bit of a challenge to take something that was so horrifying, something that people would actually want to block from children’s minds, and to try to find a way to talk about it. And it was indeed a challenge.


Are the characters’ stories in your production based on real accounts?


The characters are fictional but we did a lot of research, so the elements in the story are all from documentaries and books that we studied. And we use those elements for the different endings in the show, and they’re all based on real-life accounts that we uncovered in our research. In truth, they actually still don’t know what really happened in the end on that day.

Once we started figuring out the show, I realised we could use movement instead of words in certain scenes. For example, when the terrorists come, you don’t necessarily hear what’s going on but the gesturing tells you they are there. The movement was a way in for me.


Can both adults and children get something out of this show?


It’s so nice to see children in the audience as well as adults. There are different stories that are being told on stage and when there are younger and older people in the audience, you see different sides to the audience too. Most of the adults are emotional because they either connect with what happened at the time, or compare it to their own lives, or events happening in the world today. Children often roar with laughter at moments when adults just don’t because they see what’s happening so differently.


Any final thoughts?


During the Paris attacks and the Brussels attacks the schools were shut down, the military and police raced through the streets; we were on lock-down. Someone asked me, ‘Would you still have made this show after the Paris attacks?’ – and I said, ‘Probably not’. But now that we have and it’s here and we’re performing it, it works.



Us/Them is playing in the Dorfman Theatre from Monday 16 January. Visit the Us/Them page.