I thought a devised work about a child rapist and child murderer starring children would set off non-stop ethical alarm bells for me. And yet during the show I’m laughing. It feels casual, playful, and mostly comfortably distanced. Perhaps that is even more disturbing. What lingers is no so much the subject but how the piece is staged, how performance is constructed, and who holds the power–actor, director, or audience.
Five Easy Pieces by Swiss director Milo Rau in collaboration with the Belgian arts center CAMPO focuses on the life and legacy of Belgian serial child predator and murderer Marc Dutroux, with a cast of young people ages 11 to 15.
Children are not immune from violence, death, or abuse but we don’t aim to intentionally inflict it on them for theatrical performance. Apparently here, Rau worked with a psychologist, advisors, and the children’s parents to minimize any harm. The result is an opportunity for us to consider what we seek from performance and reflect on it differently once children are the lens.
The voice of authority on stage here is the casting director (Hendrik Van Doorn) who often instructs the actors from behind a desk and then moves to man the camera for filmed scenes. He is all exasperated patience and weary irritation. The children mind him but also don’t seem terribly intimidated by him.
Actual director Milo Rau is the invisible, yet visible hand. You cannot pretend he does not lurk all over the show and the idea that this is all at the behest of someone else.
After the actors are introduced to us (they share their skills–singing, piano playing, accordion, dance–and then they answer questions about life, acting, and death), the body of the work is divided into five segments. Sometimes these are monologues performed by the young actors on stage which are then projected on a large screen above with the rest of the team of actors acting as film crew.
In other moments, the younger actors on stage perform a scene while it also plays out simultaneously with adult actors above them on the screen. We watch a teen walk like a stooped elderly man or a teen couple clutch at each other graveside at the death of their child. At the same time, we watch adults portray the same in pre-filmed segments.
Overall, the effect is less and less about Dutroux and more about performance, re-creation, mimicry, expression, and ultimately power. Dutroux is the subject matter but the sensation feels larger than the taboo issues. While Dutroux’s acts can overlap in some way with the questions of abuse, control, and power, it was the conversation about artistic power that was sustaining.
For the most part, the young actors seemed casually bemused by the tasks. They are asked probing questions, “Have you ever killed?,” what is the creepiest thing you can think of, how would you like to die? While staged for us, these questions do not appear any more menacing than slumber party questions kids might ask, boundary testing each other.
But there was one scene that intentionally pushed at the questionable, but even so it created meaning beyond the literal. Whether that then justifies it or not, we are left to ponder. In Piece III, Essay on Submission, a young girl is to take her clothes off and recite the letter one of Marc Dutroux’s victims wrote to her parents.
The scene is set. She is clothed on sitting on the bed. The casting director insists she remove her clothes so the scene can begin. She does not move. He repeats the request and the tension over her refusal butts up against the whole film crew being in position and ready to go.
It’s a scene that plays out in real life all the time with adult actors. An actor asks for more time to ready themself, the crew is antsy over losing light, cost runovers, or simply the power of the actor to stop the momentum.
Here, the young actor finally relents and slowly begins to peel off her sweat pants and then the casting director steps in to aggressively remove her pants and top.
The camera holds on her and she clutches her legs tightly to her body and begins her scene. This is as close to Dutroux’s horror as we get. A child contemplating her mortality and the disturbing details of her captivity. While of course it is a chilling monologue, it’s the coercive theatrical pressure that lasts.
Is this what we’ve come to see? Who is making me uncomfortable? Rau? Dutroux? Is this an effort to recreate truth, shake us, or make us consider what we ask of actors every time they make themselves vulnerable. I’m still not sure. Was it necessary? It certainly shifted my entire perspective on the show and made me pay attention with greater care to who was in power and how that was exerted. So while troubling it felt justified.
Later, a young actor is portraying one of the parents of a Dutroux victim. He gives a long monologue and the casting director asks if he can do another take and cry while doing. He says he’s trying. “Are you able to try harder?” He looks resigned, not upset or frustrated.
He takes a tear stick and chemically creates a tear. A dramatic and cinematic single tear streams down his face. And the audience laughs. We’ve seen the sausage making so it no longer has any emotional meaning. And it’s a beautifully filmed shot–perfect composition and effect. But we know what went into it. There’s nothing behind the tear except achieving the result. It’s so incredibly empty that it beckons laughter. For a moment, I wonder about the actor and his sense of control over the audience and whether he derives pleasure from getting such a reaction.
The same actor wipes away his lips after kissing his co-star. One of the kids in the introduction talked about doing the same when their parent kisses them. And I think for a moment if this is “real” or “performative.” I have no idea anymore.
Perhaps that’s why the laughter feels safe and I’m not worried for the young actors. They seem at great distance from the “real” events and their re-creation hardly seems to be weighing on them. Like childhood games of playing war , the reality of those acts is far from the child’s imagined perspective of them.
In the end I spend little time thinking of Dutroux (who may have been a looming figure for the people of Belgium causing them to question their police and justice system but obviously doesn’t carry the same cultural weight for us) and Belgium’s colonialist roots (Dutroux’s father was stationed in the Congo before Lumumba led them to independence and Dutroux was born there). The piece may be interested in these topics but they are not as well articulated (or as resonant to us) as the ideas around performance.
Simply asking someone, adult or child, to summon tears, the strip naked, to cough themself into fits, belies a power imbalance. While in theory actors can consent to such choices, recent events surrounding abuse in Hollywood make me wonder about consent. Financial pressures, maintaining a career dependent on your pliant reputation, always worrying about your next job based on your performance on this job, and keeping people in power happy, must weigh on performers. None of this vulnerability is ever without a tinge of coercion. But also here, with a devised work, these young performers may have more control than I imagine and who do they aim to please in participating–their parents, the director, or themselves.
Most of all, as a frequent theater consumer, I realize how much of this I take for granted.