The Children Will Show How It’s Done
Since it’s often hard to explain a good piece of theater – as Milo Rau’s Five Easy Pieces, which had its all-too-brief North American premier two weeks ago at the Skirball Center, certainly was – we might as well start with everything this show is not. Five Easy Pieces was, I think, somewhat dis-served by its constant promotion as controversial, leaving most potential viewers knowing little other than it features a cast of children, led by an adult, performing the story of a Belgian serial killer. Which is technically true, though that misses the point by a long-shot. By coincidence, before I caught the show last Thursday, I read Carolyn Murnick’s essay “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Serial Killers,” and I would have liked to know what she would have made of the play – I think she would have appreciated what it does.
The whole backstory, only part of which is told in the play, is that in the mid-1990s, Marc Dutroux, a Belgian serial rapist released after a too-brief prison sentence, escalated to serial killer. He preyed on young girls (twelve through mid-teens) in pairs, and held them in secret basement dungeons for extended periods during which they were sexually abused. And the killing was particularly heartless. When he needed to clear out space for his third and fourth victims, he simply drugged the first two into sleep and buried them alive. When his kidnapping accomplice was arrested for car theft of the van they’d used – threatening Dutroux – he did the same thing to his accomplice. But despite disappearing him, Dutroux wound up in jail for car theft (and only that), leaving his current prisoners in the care of his wife (another knowing accomplice), who let them starve to death. Upon release, Dutroux captured two more girls, trapping them for some three months before being arrested (this time for his rape and murder), after which they were rescued.
Belgium has always been a somewhat notional nation-state, cobbled together for the convenience of European nobles in the 19th century. It frequently suffers from failure of central government, split between partisans of Flemish-speaking Flanders to the north and French-speaking Wallonia to the south, who would generally prefer to be independent of one another. In fact, Dutroux himself exploited this failure by often capturing victims in one region and imprisoning them in another, relying on the mutual non-cooperation of local police departments to cover his tracks. This contributed to the society-wide fall-out after his capture. The sheer incompetence of the police (who, at one point, searched one of his houses with two victims imprisoned in the basement; the cops didn’t find them, and they later starved to death) led many to suspect Dutroux was being protected. This was 1996, in the midst of an international moral panic about supposed “child-sex” rings, virtually none of which were ever verified as real. Dutroux, like some American child predators, actively fanned the flames of the Pizzagate-esque conspiracy theory, elliptically claiming to have served as a procurer for a group of elite of child abusers. Social outrage grew, leading to “White March” on Oct. 20, 1996, in which nearly 300,000 protested in Brussels. Whatever their feelings about the national arrangement, and whatever the underlying cause, the government had spectacularly failed a basic social function: to protect people’s children in a competent fashion, resulting in a trauma-based communitas that cut across the political and linguistic boundaries. More than perhaps any other event aside from its colonial enterprise, Dutroux linked the disparate elements of Belgium together. Trauma made Belgians Belgian. And this is the story that Five Easy Pieces tells.
As much as Dutroux is the linchpin of the piece, all you need to know about him, really, is what the children yell at the beginning. As is the style with these process-as-performance theater pieces, the show opens with the seven children (aged 11 through 15, the same as Dutroux’s victims) in situ, sitting around the stage, being interviewed and explaining who they are. The lone adult, the “casting director” Hendrik Van Doorn, sits behind a desk upstage-left, with a live-feed camera projecting a close-up of his face on a large screen above the stage. In a nod to the complicated nature of Belgian history, the first to be interviewed isn’t a White kid, it’s Eva Luna Van Hijfte, who notes her name is “borrowed” from another language, and whose family is from Sri Lanka. And no, she notes, she doesn’t quite feel either Belgian or Sri Lankan when she’s in those countries, both societies viewing her as a bit of an outsider. One by one the kids are interviewed, slowly offering tentative (although clearly well-rehearsed) answers in a patient fashion, until Van Doorn projects a photo of Marc Dutroux’s face on the screen and asks if they know who this is. A cacophony of answers spills forth, the kids speaking over one another in a rush of Flemish and French that the producers don’t bother to try to translate into the supertitles. But that’s the point: Everyone knows something about Dutroux, and that’s more important than what.
Most of the lurid details of Dutroux’s story are excised from the play – the wife’s culpability (a major scandal that continues to reverberate) is removed, as is most of the conspiracy theorizing about a child-sex ring. Instead, Dutroux exists as little more than what Murnick, in the essay I referenced at the beginning, defines a serial killer as: “[S]imply a man. A boring, attention-hungry, deeply misogynistic cipher.” And in the first of the titular five pieces, we start when this cipher was just four years old. The seven children performers are cast to play the various participants in the January, 1960 round-table in Brussels that established an independent Congo, then a century into being brutally exploited as a Belgian colony. The kids cobble together their costumes as the Belgian king, his aide-de-camp, the Belgian Prime Minister, and Patrice Lumumba, played by Eva Luna (I apologize for my notes not permitting me to always track which child played which role; they certainly deserve credit). They then take position in a row center-stage, and suddenly a film starts, projected over their heads.
The play takes its title from a piano composition by Stravinsky intended for four hands: that is, as a pedagogical exercise between a teacher and child/pupil learning to play. This interactive pedagogy is mirrored throughout the performance through the dual casting of children and adults enacting the same stories. The children perform live, on-stage, scenes which have been filmed by adult actors; both unfold simultaneously. The kids and the adults wear the same clothes, and perform the exact same movements and gestures. But it’s only the children’s voices we hear, a multilayered exploration of how we seek to understand experience through storytelling (in theater and film), as well as how storytelling mirrors some of the very power structures that act on us in a society, informing these traumatic experiences we then seek to understand through representation strategies.
In the first of the five pieces, the children start with the public declaration of Congo’s independence. The Belgian prime minister announces independence for the colony; the king says nothing audible, just an unknown comment to his aide; then Lumumba takes the microphone to give a speech denouncing the evils of colonialism and promising the development of a better, free Congolese society. Of course, we’re reminded by narration, he would be captured less than a year later, forced to eat the typed pages of his speech, and murdered by partisans in the employ of Western neo-colonial powers. At which point, one of the children (this only happens onstage; the film has cut) pulls out a prop handgun, aims it at Lumumba onstage, and there’s a loud gun-shot. Eva Luna collapses in a heap.
At first, it might feel like this is tedious and glib politicizing, abstractly linking the violence of Belgian colonialism to the sadism of a serial killer. But as the first “piece” continues, there’s a comic break as a child – with garish old-man make-up – hobbles across the stage to the strains of a street-corner accordion-player (this is also partnered with a film of adults). He hobbles, struggles to drop a coin in the busker’s case, stumbles, and then shuffles off. Then the child actor – who’s already explained that he thinks film is preferable to theater since you can see people’s faces better – sits himself down on a chair. Van Doorn brings over the camera, and the kids collect the accoutrements of a film shoot – boom-mic, scene clapboard – to stage the next scene as cinema, where we learn that this “old man” is, in fact Dutroux’s father, who was working in the Congo when his son was born. And he wants us all to know that has no idea why his son did what he did. As the re-enactment of this contemporary interview with Dutroux’s father (I believe conducted by Rau and his collaborators) unfolds, we learn that young Marc moved to Congo as an infant, where his father was distant from his mother. Upon returning to Belgium, they divorced, after which the father lost touch with his son for decades. Even in the Congo, things were strained between the parents, after his dad caught his mom in an affair with one of her underage pupils (both were teachers – a child sex scandal today, the dad notes). Afterward, the elder Dutroux turned to other women, and – in a chilling admission – he notes that in the Belgian Congo in those days, all you had to do was “point at a Black woman on the street” to get her in bed. Despite that indulgence in colonialist power, he wants to reassure us that he’s actually quite sympathetic to the Congolese and opposed colonialism. In fact, these days, like most Belgians with the surname “Dutroux” – at least of third of whom have had it legally changed since 1996 – he’d like to change his name to disassociate himself from his son’s heinous crimes. The name he would like to take? “Patrice Lumumba.”
That’s a mind-fuck of complexity to unpack, and this only the first of the five pieces, ranging – as it does – from political hypocrisy, colonialist presumption, and sexual convenience, to gender and racial violence, with a staggering intellectual and emotional blind-spot to cap it off.
As much as this show takes as its theme the trauma-based community produced by Dutroux’s crimes, it’s not a portrait of innocents, despite the fact the show calls upon children to re-enact the social failures and violence of adults. Rather, it questions the idea that storytelling produces catharsis – a healthy purging of emotion – so much as a pedagogical inculcation of ideological positions. That is, that it doesn’t help us “understand” complicated experiences so much as it does to help fold trauma back into a common sort of understanding, rationalizing and excusing underlying causes.
After the first scene, there’s an interstitial in which Van Doorn continues interviewing the children, this time about death. Have any of them killed anything? Bugs, a couple admit, including one who admits torturing wasps to death through suffocation. And then there’s the boy that admits that when he was little, he accidentally killed a kitten. He didn’t exactly mean to (he didn’t know throwing it against a wall could hurt it), but, asked how he felt after, he admits he was both sad but felt “powerful.” This leads to the second scene, where the children explore death, both recounting the abbreviated story of Dutroux’s crimes and then re-enacting a part of the police investigation. After his arrest, Dutroux was forced by the police to go onsite and demonstrate how he buried some of the bodies. (This is the only scene in which one of the children nominally “plays” Dutroux, during which he says nothing.) It’s a re-enactment of a police investigation re-enactment of a crime. A little girl is called upon to play “dead” for the scene (as in, she’s “playing” a live adult whom Dutroux is asked to carry like he carried the bodies). Van Doorn explains to the girl that all she has to do is lie down, not move, and try to breath so shallowly no one can see. “Voila!” he announces, the girl having achieved sufficient verisimilitude. A boy picks her up in an over-the-back carry and carries her in front of the live-feed camera to lie her in the “hole” onstage.
The boy who carries her, I believe, was the one who tortured wasps by suffocation. The girl, of course, is documenting how Dutroux buried victims alive.
I won’t describe the rest of the show at length. The third scene is the darkest, where it finally calls upon one of the children (Blanche Ghysseart) to perform one of Dutroux’s victims. Ghysseart performs letters Sabine Dardenne (Ghysseart’s age when Dutroux imprisoned her) wrote to her parents while in the torture dungeon. To set up the scenes, the kids again collect their film set stuff as Van Doorn sets up the camera. Then – with the same patient, slightly indulgent tone he uses with his young wards – Van Doorne instructs Ghysseart to take off her clothes.
For the audience of adults in the theater, it’s deeply uncomfortable and quite hard to watch. (I won’t lie, I found myself thinking that only a European production would do something like this.) Disrobed, the camera flips on and we see Ghysseart framed in the old, cliché shot of a thousand moves and TV shows: a frightened female victim in a dark room on a grimy mattress. Close-up on her face, camera POV for our spectatorial consumption. The first gesture, before Ghysseart starts her monologue, is Van Doorn reaching forward, his hand crossing through the frame, to place her hair behind her left ear so we can see her face.
Every bit of this recognizable from popular media, from porn to horror (if you’ve seen the end of Silence of the Lambs, you know exactly what I’m talking about). But when Van Doorn moves her hair – such a perverse power gesture – it comes as relief to the audience; when her hair is moved, you see a strap for her halter-top, and you feel slightly more comfortable knowing she’s not actually naked. Of course, this turns into a later sucker-punch when Ghysseart, performing Sabine Dardenne’s letters, reveals that Dutroux made her wear just such a “too small” halter-top; your relief, as an audience member, turns to disgust realizing that Ghysseart’s costume – once taken as a relief – is the same costume Dutroux made Dardenne wear.
All of which comes back around to the title of the entire scene, “Submission.” The performance enacts – through both filmic and theatrical means – the push-and-pull of emotional manipulation that fictional stories always employ. We – the audience – submit, somehow, to this nightmare, and as a result we begin to understand the show’s critique. Dardenne, the victim who wrote the letters, didn’t die. She was one of the rescued girls. The police couldn’t find them, though, so Dutroux was taken back to his house by the police, and released the girls himself. As we learn in the second scene, when he opened the door, notwithstanding the presence of the police, the girls almost dutifully kissed Dutroux on the cheek and thanked him, as they took their first steps of freedom.
Fucked up? Definitely. Exploitative? I guess it’s a matter of perspective. Using children in such roles is going to immediately raise hackles for many, and I actually include myself in that. It’s still au courant for performance makers (particularly European) to use non-traditional actors (children, developmentally disabled, differently physically abled, and so on) as part of the generative content of the work. Rather than existing as mere skilled artists, their bodies and identities become part of the show’s content itself, objects as much as agents. Necessarily with children, this toys with ideas of innocence and raises questions of consent. Milo Rau’s company, the International Institute of Political Murder, developed the show with CAMPO, a Belgian arts center that has a history of working with children, and psychologists were engaged in the process to try to ensure that the young actors were cared for.
Which is perhaps a bit more effort than the Belgian state was capable of expending during Dutroux’s heydey. Watching these children onstage cast in the roles of grieving parents, we get a fairly blunt representation of how trauma and grief are passed from one generation to the next. At the same time, Rau won’t let us accept this as wholly positive. Rather, by its very nature these expressions of grief are performative, public gestures enacted in a larger discourse that seeks to define how we are to make sense of these events. Again and again, Rau intercedes in these re-enactments to draw attention to the way in which these social forces work. In the fourth scene, a girl and a boy re-perform an interview as the parents of the one of the murdered children. In the live projection, we see the boy in the power position, closer to center of frame and the camera, with the girl – his “wife” – behind him, constantly shifting her gaze from her “husband’s” face to the camera. As the boy dives into a lengthy description of how powerless the father felt waiting, night after night, for some sign of what happened to his child, we wait for the girl to get to speak. Except she doesn’t. She’s cast merely as a grieving mother whose own perspective is subservient to the male’s sense of impotence.
Complicated and problematic, Five Easy Pieces counts as one of the best theater-going experiences I’ve had in ages, and the only shame is that its run was so short.