August 20, 2016
Singapore International Festival of Arts
By Clara Chow
A play about a paedophile-murderer acted out by children has the potential to be harrowing or sensational, but Five Easy Pieces proves gently moving and powerful.
The performance – a collaboration between Swiss director Milo Rau and his International Institute of Political Murder (IPPM), and arts centre CAMPO from Ghent (a city and municipality in the Flemish region of Belgium) – takes as its subject the case of Belgian serial killer and child molester Marc Dutroux. Dutroux, who was arrested in 1996 for the abduction, rape and torture of six girls, aged eight to 19. Four of them were murdered by him. The widely publicised case involved public outcry over police mishandling the investigation, an escape, and an alleged government cover-up which dogged the subsequent trial.
To be honest, I was unfamiliar with the Dutroux case and googled most of the details after watching the play. The production is less interested in rehashing the facts of the case and presenting a straightforward account of the Dutroux atrocities, than it is in this dilemma: How do you use child actors in a show with such dark themes? Where do we draw the line when it comes to exposing our children to the evil that human beings are capable of, in order to caution them or tell them something about compassion, without traumatising them?
The result of Rau’s text and direction is both lyrical and complex. Despite the word “easy” in its title, the production attempts to answer these questions, without resorting to pat homilies and easy truths.
As the house gradually fills and audience members take their seats to cheerful piano muzak, seven young actors – the youngest is eight, while the oldest is in their teens – lounge around on stage, chatting among themselves. Eventually, the lights go down. An interviewer/director figure (Peter Seynaeve) takes his place behind a desk stage left. His face is projected on a video screen occupying centre stage. He interviews the young performers: “What is freedom?” “What’s the hardest thing about acting?” “What does theatre mean to you?” Through this Q&A, the child performers’ personalities, personal philosophies, aspirations and thought processes are revealed. Maurice Leerman, for example, is a powdered method actor who draws on his memories of coughing in his mother’s womb for his portrayal of an 81-year-old man. Elle Liza Tayou is a Rihanna fan, who has a soulful voice. Willem Loobuyck almost died as a baby, but survived after a liver transplant. During rehearsals for this play, he found out that, coincidentally, his co-actor Rachel Dedain’s mother had been one of the doctors who had saved him.
The tone is light, witty, sometimes wry, although Seynaeve can quickly shade into a stern, autocratic persona, silencing them when they grow too boisterous. This is a subtle touch, I feel, which underscores how the balance of power, when it comes to any interaction between a child and an adult, is always unfairly weighted towards the latter – an appropriate reminder, given the theme of kidnapping and abuse here.
Cast interview/introduction over, the play-within-a-play – essentially scenes which tell the Dutroux story from the perspectives of different characters – begin. Film and live-action meld, as the child actors perform in front of a film with adult actors delivering the same actions and lines. There is a whimsical feel to this doubling of action, and I am reminded of Wes Anderson films, in which child prodigies such as Max Fischer and Margot Tenenbaum often attempt to play roles, both on stage and in real/reel life, beyond their years. But this doubling is also an essential part of the child actors’ process: in mimicking the adult actors in the film, they could perhaps bypass the emotional process that adult actors have to put in to craft their characters. They were accessing the scene once removed, and perhaps shielded from the implications and emotional fallout of dealing with the dark material. As the interview with the production’s dramaturg Stefan Blaske in the programme notes states: “At the start of rehearsals, we acted out fragments from Scenes From A Marriage by Ingmar Bergman with the children… The children understood intellectually what was happening in those highly intricate human scenes and acted them out, but without recognising the actual emotions.”
This is something interesting to consider, as an audience member dealing with the intensity of some of the scenes presented, and wondering about the perversity of making children act out abuse. In one scene, where Pepijn Loobuyck – with Polly Persyn playing his wife beside him – has to speak a monologue to the camera in character as the father of one of the missing girls who was eventually found dead, I held my breath, as I always do when I relate, as a parent, to characters going through the pain of losing a child. This is suddenly interrupted when Seynaeve, directing the scene, asks Pepijn to cry. When the youth says he cannot, he is handed something to apply to his eyes to make them sting, and then told to speak the last paragraph again. As the chemically-induced tears roll down Pepijn’s eyes, this viewer experiences a disjunction between one’s genuine emotions, and the knowledge – once acquired, unable to be unlearnt – that the actor evoked that reaction in you through artifice.
That, perhaps, gets to the nub of one of the concepts Five Easy Pieces tries to explore. Children, especially very young children, are often unable to distinguish between fact and fiction; the real or pretend (my six-year-old, for example, is often asking me if something he saw in a movie is real; if Hong Kong has indeed been destroyed by a rampaging kaiju). Theatre, by virtue of its need for suspension of disbelief, and acting, by requiring performers sometimes to compartmentalise and ‘deal’ with the paces they put themselves through, are the perfect vehicles to introduce children to how to regulate their emotions and build some defence mechanisms. I like how Five Easy Pieces allow the tension to pile up in each scene, before disrupting it and allowing the child actors to deflate the anxiety with their own take on what just happened. “How do you act dead?” Rachel wants to know, after re-enacting the re-enactment of burying a victim’s body (again, the layers of removal from the ‘real’ thing as a form of insulation). In confronting the horror of Dutroux’s crime through the lens of acting, the young people are able to address it in terms they can understand, asking questions that hopefully will enable them to cope psychologically with the cruelty that does exist in the world.
Along the way, they tease out complications for themselves, raising the issue of culpability and moral taint. “If I shoot you,” asks Polly, levelling a finger pistol at us, the audience, “is it Polly the character or Polly the actor who shoots you?”
(I am reminded of how, in Margaret Atwood’s novel, Oryx and Crake, when Jimmy asks Oryx, a former child porn actress, if the sex she shot in her films was actual or simulated, she replies: All sex is real.)
There is one point in the play where the perversity of having children act as the victims of a paedophile does cut too close to home for me: when eight-year-old Rachel is commanded by Seynaeve to take off her clothes, and then filmed performing a series of spoken letters as 12-year-old Sabine Dardenne, whom Dutroux kept in a dungeon. Hearing a little girl talk about her captor putting himself inside her, and telling her that “the sex should be fun”, is tough, and Rachel later hints at her discomfort with her scene, when she says that she wished she could change certain things about the play, except that it happened in real life. I wish we could have heard more from Rachel about how she approached playing her role, but a part of me also wonders if this counts as morbid curiosity on my part, as exploitation on the producers’ parts, and/or complicity in her exploitation on all our parts as audience members. I do not have an answer to this.
One recent review of the production had criticised the production and its child actors for not fully inhabit their roles, which I feel is missing the point. The schism between the self that acts and the self that watches is very much deliberate here, I think. This is not theatre as mere entertainment and immersion, but a kind of induction and inoculation of the psyche. In view of that, it seems a shame that the R-18 rating for the play in Singapore meant that many teens who might have benefitted from this theatrical encounter missed it. And parents who might have wanted to make for themselves the decision of whether to experience Five Easy Pieces with their offspring and to guide them through it were unable to do so.
Would I bring my own children to see it? The answer, because of my children’s unique personalities, has to be, regretfully, no. My ten-year-old has a phobia of death, and is very likely to be upset by the subject of child murder. And it would all go over my happy-go-lucky six-year-old’s head. Still, I imagine that there will be families with kids mature enough to attend, and who will have thoughtful post-show discussions together. But the Singaporean censors’ reaction to the show is itself relevant to what Rau and his collaborators lay bare: childhood is a social construct that depends on cultural context. How do we and/or the state perceive and value children? I see them as little adults and are loathe to sugar-coat anything for them. Another person, however, might feel that innocence is precious and must be safe-guarded at all cost, for as long as possible.
Five New Pieces is a meta-narrative that encourages us to examine and re-examine our knee-jerk reactions, and our possibly patronising attitudes towards the young. Ultimately, it is a bravura turn, a tender effort, by precocious talents and budding actors. “Will you keep acting?” the white-haired director figure asks his charges near the end. I’m rooting for them, that they do.