The Malta Independent 12 December 2018, Wednesday

Breaking the divide between us and them

Tuesday, 2 October 2018, 10:33 Last update: about 3 months ago

This October, the Splendid in Valletta will be transformed into the Beslan school gymnasium as The Shrinking Violets bring the ground-breaking play ‘Us/Them’ to the stage. Carla Zahra speaks to director Chiara Hyzler about this upcoming production.

The award-winning play Us/Them will be the second play produced by The Shrinking Violets. Their last - Ernest and the Pale Moon - played to sold-out audiences at Palazzo de la Salle last October. This year, it will be Splendid that hosts the company. And it is here that local actors Maria Buckle and Jacob Pullicino will playfully reconstruct the tragic events that took place in Beslan, a small town in Northern Russia, with a childlike fascination for detail.

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It was in 2017, that Chiara Hyzler, already a well-established name in local theatre, joined forces with Denise Mulholland, Cathy Lawlor, Maria Buckle and Jo Caruana, to form The Shrinking Violets. Following their successful debut with Ernest & the Pale Moon, director Chiara Hyzler explains that "when it comes to selecting productions, we look for simple, captivating pieces that have the potential to introduce something different to the local theatre scene." Us/Them does exactly that, through the ways in which its story and subject matter are brought to life.

This is a play that recounts tragedy in a completely new way. On 1 September 2004, children in Beslan were invited, as they always are, to celebrate the traditional Russian Knowledge Day (their first day of school). With one hand clinging to the colourful stringed balloons that the students were asked to bring along (one balloon for every year that they've been in school), the other hand held onto their parents' loving grip. But, as the balloons were released to welcome the start of a new academic year, Chechen terrorists opened fire on the innocent crowd, thus changing life in Beslan forever.

That day, 1,200 people were ushered into the school gymnasium and held hostage for more than 52 hours, as the attackers demanded independence from Russia. The massacre claimed 334 lives, including 186 children, but those three days would forever remain imprinted in the memory of the survivors.

The moving play Us/Them, written by Belgian playwright Carly Wijs, is a tale that sees childlike innocence coincide with harrowing tragedy. Highlighting the divide between us and them as the place where fear is bred, the play drives home the message that it's always the other - the unfamiliar - that scares us. The physical one-hour long piece reveals not only how children relate to tragedy, but also how the world deals with trauma, while bringing into question the stories we tell about ourselves and each other.

Ten years after the massacre, Us/Them premiered in Belgium. Yet, rather than trying to educate a child audience about what took place a decade prior, Wijs wanted to try and establish a children's view on atrocities, which is radically different to an adult's perception.

Here in Malta and as a teacher herself, Chiara expresses how confronting tragedy in a school environment comes with a multitude of difficulties. "There are moments where, as a director, you must not allow the harsh reality of the subject to hit you. If you allow yourself to feel what those children are feeling, it will take a toll on your emotional wellbeing and no show will go up."

Indeed, the ability to remain subjective and keep her emotions in check has proven to be one of the biggest obstacles in the production process. "There was one moment where I cracked slightly during rehearsals, but you just have to push yourself and move forwards," she admits.

Having watched the play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2016, Chiara was impressed by how it transformed a very harsh and tragic reality into an enjoyable and almost light-hearted piece. Us/Them also uses a child's view of the world to focus on the media's depiction of the Beslan siege, emphasising how people might hold different memories of the same event. The subject matter remains relevant when contextualised in recent historical events as, in 2018, we find ourselves in the midst of terrorist attacks occurring all over the world. Us/Them is an eye-opener in terms of understanding how children cope with trauma and demystifying the stories that we fabricate about the other.

Us/Them will be staged at The Splendid, Valletta on Thursdays 4 and 11 October, Fridays 5 and 12 October and Sundays 7 and 14 October at 8pm and on Saturdays 6 and 13 October at 7 and 9pm.

Tickets are priced at €20 and can be purchased from showshappening.com 
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