Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
—John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band

Swiss director Milo Rau’s Five Easy Pieces takes its title from Igor Stravinsky’s 1917 work designed to teach children the piano. Rau’s lessons also involve children, but the lessons are about learning the adult world with its perversions, exploitations, political and sexual violence, lying actors, truthful performing, and the questionable parsing of the world into make-believe and reality. In Rau’s version, music is still present when, at the beginning of the work, a young performer sings John Lennon’s Imagine. It’s a utopian song about a world where dreamers live in peace without killing, countries, or possessions. The world of Imagine is present on stage in the contrast between the innocent manner of the child performers and their subject, the Belgian pedophile and murderer, Marc Dutroux (born 1956). Having children enact the five scenes (Piece I: Father and Son, Piece II: What is Acting, Piece III: Essay on Submission, Piece IV: Alone in the Night, Piece V: What Are Clouds) in the manner of a rehearsal for a film is as much the subject matter as Dutroux. This is a world where stories are difficult to tell, upsetting to hear, and challenging to grasp. Staging them by enlisting seven children and teenagers in their telling—in the roles of Dutroux, his victims, their parents, and a police officer—collapses the distance between the stage world and the real world, where each is a rehearsal for the other. They reflect one another in ways that are both the same and different. “When you are angry, you are not really angry but you are angry,” the children are told.

But why children? When asked what freedom means, at the beginning of Five Easy Pieces, one child answers that he is free but only free to do what he has permission to do. The onstage adult assistant director, Peter Seynaeve, demonstrates this in the way he instructs the children how to stage and act each of the “five easy pieces.” “To act” both in the sense of doing something and in the sense of making an action that is a representation. When a girl reads Sabine Dardenne’s letters to her parents written while Dutroux held her hostage, starved her, and sexually violated her—letters that Dutroux read but did not send to Sabine’s parents—we are confronted with a representation with no escape, no possibility of denial or refuge in make-believe. How often do we get to hear the voice of a real girl portrayed on stage? The somber and certain voice of a girl confronting the world as it is: not pink, not pretty, not nice? Having children perform such a subject is strategically problematic because it forces us to face moral and ethical questions about both what Dutroux did and about having children perform the story. What kind of society generates such a person, and what kind of theater uses children to explore this subject?

Each of the scenes in Five Easy Pieces is a different lesson: doing mimicry, creating character, submitting to the director, playing emotion, and rebelling against what one is asked to do. The upstage screen, which is sometimes live-feed and sometimes a separate movie, creates a double vision of stage and screen where acting, as the director explains to the children, is like dreaming because you are somewhere completely different yet you remain the same in thoughts and feelings. Theater, Five Easy Pieces suggests, is a cruel art of the invention of truth in the clash of fiction and nonfiction.

Five Easy Pieces takes place at the intersection of sexual violence, government corruption, the foundations and legacy of European colonialism, and theater. Belgium’s infamous domination and exploitation of the Belgian Congo between 1908 and 1960 lurks in the shadows of Five Easy Pieces. Dutroux, whose parents immigrated to the Belgian Congo but returned to Belgium when he was four years old, as the Congo achieved independence and Patrice Lumumba became the first prime minister, learned well from his father, who says in Five Easy Pieces that when he was in the Congo it was easy to have sex with black women. He merely had to point one out. He had permission. Belgium’s ruthless economic exploitation of and violence against the Congolese is also mirrored in Dutroux’s car thefts and muggings, which earned him enough money to purchase seven small houses. He used the basements of three of these houses to imprison and torture the girls he kidnapped. Four of those girls never saw the sky again. The colonizer, not unlike a theater-maker, sets up a framework of interaction that determines an axis of reality.

Released in 1992 from his first imprisonment for the rape of five girls, after serving only half of his 13 ó-year sentence, Dutroux resumed raping and started murdering. Two of his victims, Sabine Dardenne and Laetitia Delhez, survived, but four others, Melissa Russo, Julie Lejeune, An Marchal, and Eefje Lambrecks, all perished. There was an outpouring of public outrage at both the government and the police and suspicion that police were involved in a pedophile ring. A 2004 opinion poll carried out by Belgian newspapers found that 68 percent of Belgians believed Dutroux was being protected by people unseen. “Belgium’s Trial of Shame,” a BBC headline blared. Rau’s staging of this story points out the crimes of the colonialists abroad are allied with the crimes of the colonialists at home.

Rau’s theater and film production company, the International Institute of Political Murder (IIPM), founded in 2007, has been rattling the space between the lit stage and the dark house for more than a decade. The work of IIPM was formed around the idea of a new political art deemed “Real-Theater.” Today Rau writes in his Ghent Manifesto that the aim “is not to depict the real, but to make the representation itself real.” Rau, one of the most sought-after directors in Europe, is also a public intellectual and essayist who pursued German and Roman studies and sociology in Paris, Zurich, and Berlin under Tzvetan Todorov and Pierre Bourdieu, among others. He first came to my attention with The Last Days of the Ceausescus (2009), a film/theater project that reenacted the show trial of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena. Other works followed: City of Change (2010), Hate Radio (2011), The Moscow Trials (2013), The Zurich Trials (2013), The Civil Wars (2014), The Dark Ages (2015), Compassion: The History of a Machine Gun (2016), The 120 Days of Sodom (2017), and La Reprise (2018). Five Easy Pieces was the product of a collaboration with CAMPO, a Belgian theater company known for its child and youth productions. Most recently, Rau has become the artistic director of NTGent (Nederlands Toneel Gent), where his first production was Lam Gods (2018), based on the 1492 polyptych Ghent Altarpiece in St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent.

Five Easy Pieces is a virtuosic demonstration of the process of making reality on stage, a process that in Rau’s hands asks that both theater and its subjects be interrogated. Toward the end of the work, when asked to tell about a favorite movie, a young performer describes a film about a puppet theater in which an old puppet teaches a young puppet the art of acting. “How to act sorrow and how to act joy, how to play a king or servant, how to fight and how to bow, how to give a speech and how to listen to one, how to shoot someone dead and how to die.” When the puppets perform a scene in which clouds appear, the young puppet asks what clouds are, because she has never been outside the theater with its endless replication of itself, has never been able to imagine while gazing at a limitless sky. One day, when the puppet theater goes bankrupt, everything, including props and puppets, is thrown on a dump heap (of history). With broken limbs, the puppets look up, and the old puppet says to the young one, “Look, those are clouds.” It is a hopeful but fictional cinematic memory that provides dramaturgical closure to a performance about real people and events.

Children learn about the adult world by role-playing the ways adults acquiesce to corrupt governments and corporations and even colleagues. In this profoundly materialist work, the difference between the real and its representation is negligible. When the children are asked if they would like to change anything in the story, the child who plays Sabine answers that there are some things she would like changed, but because the story is real life, change is impossible.

The first item of Rau’s Ghent Manifesto states: “It’s not just about portraying the world anymore. It’s about changing it. The aim is not to depict the real, but to make the representation itself real.” For Rau, while changing the story may be impossible, changing the world is not.

Carol Martin is professor of drama, affiliated faculty in the Department of Performance Studies and NYUAD, and global network professor. Her books include Theatre of the Real and Dramaturgy of the Real on the World Stage. She is the guest editor of three special issues of TDR: Documentary Theatre, Performing the City, and Reclaiming the Real. She has been a visiting professor at Dartmouth College, Boğaziçi University, Istanbul, and NYU Paris, and has given keynote addresses on theater of the real in Oslo, York, Tel Aviv, and Berlin. Her work has been translated into French, Polish, Chinese, and Japanese.