In June 1996, Belgian police finally nabbed Marc Dutroux for abducting, torturing and raping six girls aged eight to 19, whom he kept in metal cages in the basements of his three homes around Belgium between 1995 and 1996.
Dutroux, a jobless electrician and father of two, has since been imprisoned for life, with no possibility of parole. He killed four of the six girls, namely Julie Lejeune, Melissa Russo, An Marchal and Eefje Lambrecks. Lejeune and Russo starved to death while Dutroux was away, serving a short sentence for theft. The paedophile, now 59, buried Marchal and Lambrecks alive in his garden.
The two who survived the ordeal and testified against the paedophile at his trial are Sabine Dardenne and Laetitia Delhez. They now have steady jobs and boyfriends.
Swiss director Milo Rau, who founded the theatre group The International Institute of Political Murder in 2007, has re-enacted the circumstances swirling about Dutroux's atrocities in this new play with Belgium's Campo arts centre.
Five Easy Pieces had its Asian premiere at Victoria Theatre on Thursday evening, as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts. Seven among the cast's eight adult actors are seen only in videos on a screen behind the children. The seven child actors then mimic the on-screen actions of the adults, such as grieving at Lejeune's open grave.
The eighth adult actor is Peter Seynaeve who, like the children, is always on stage in two roles - first, as the director-narrator making a documentary on Dutroux who gets the children to act out scenes while staring straight into a camera; and second, as Dutroux, savouring the children's awkwardness on camera.
Seynaeve was barely overbearing as his good-naturedness reigned despite his Dracula-like features and slicked-back platinum hair. He might have been creepier if he had tried to look like the bespectacled, moustachioed Dutroux. Evil, after all, is most banal.
The "five easy pieces", then, comprised five scenes from Dutroux's life and times - all acted out by the children entirely in Dutch. These were: the assassination of Congolese premier Patrice Lumumba; Dutroux's father recalling a son whose mother refused to breastfeed; the chief investigator of the crimes; Dardenne's account of her hell on earth; and Lejeune's parents, loving yet mad with worry.
Each child's every move was projected onto the giant screen behind them - a nifty way for Rau to sustain menace and intensity throughout.
Eight-year-old Rachel Dedain played one of the survivors, Dardenne. Sitting on a thin mattress, she kept stalling at first.
Then, as Seynaeve browbeat her to go through the motions they had rehearsed earlier for her piece to camera, as it were, she took off her sweater slowly. Then off came her trousers. Then her vest. She immediately brought her knees to her chest to shield her bared torso and delivered the evening's most poignant lines, culled from Dardenne's letters to her parents, which she had written amid her repeated rapes to stay sane. When her parents ate something tasty or listened to music, Dedain as Dardenne asked: "Do you think of me?"
The rub was that the children seemed so nonchalant and relaxed on stage from the get-go that they came off as declaiming, as opposed to inhabiting, the script.
The evening's stand-out performance was from 13-year-old Pepijn Loobuyck, who portrayed Lejeune's father subtly and sensitively with only facial expressions.
Ironically, when Seynaeve ordered him to cry on cue, Loobuyck yelled "I'm doing my best!" in English, which broke the haunting spell he had cast up till then.
Now, did this play warrant an R18 rating by the Media Development Authority?
Well, for one thing, having the children perform before an adult-only audience was, in a world that has seen paedophilia increasingly hogging newspaper headlines, a special kind of irony that even Rau had not dreamt up. He had intended this rich, cautionary work to be seen by children aged 12 and older.
The performances were, frankly, tepid, and the theme of scummy violence was never overplayed. The production was no more unnerving than an episode of the long-running TV docudrama series, CrimeWatch.
The play would not have held the attention of children weaned on the Internet and old enough to know where babies come from.