A controversial theatre director is using children to stage a story about how Belgium has been traumatised by the paedophile killer Marc Dutroux, who kidnapped and raped six little girls.
Milo Rau, who shot to fame for his acclaimed play "The Last Days of the Ceausescus" about Romania's former communist dictators, said he worked for six months with child actors and psychologists before staging "Five Easy Pieces".
The Dutroux case, which sparked huge street protests at the multiple failings of the authorities, still haunts Belgium more than a decade after the man dubbed "The Monster of Charleroi" was sentenced to life in prison in 2004.
The electrician confessed to the murder of four of the six girls he imprisoned.
Two died of starvation in 1996 in a basement cell in one of his homes while he was in prison for a separate kidnapping.
Rau said Dutroux has since become a bogeyman for Belgium children and during casting of the play he was surprised to discover the young actors "knew the case well.
"For them it's a myth, a fairytale, something very far away," the Swiss director told AFP.
Critics have so far praised the play -- which uses seven children aged between eight and 13 alongside adult actors -- for its sensitivity, with the Swiss newspaper the Tribune de Geneve saying Rau had favoured "intelligence over sensationalism".
But the director -- who previously staged Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik's speech from the dock -- admitted that "creating adult theatre with children could metaphorically be seen as an act of paedophilia."
- Too shocking? -
Asked whether the case was too shocking for children, Rau made clear that the play wasn't "about the horror in itself. It's about the big issues which lurk behind this... the decline of a country, national paranoia and the mourning and anger which followed the crimes."
The play is being staged in Flemish, with surtitles in French, at Nanterre near Paris this weekend as a part of a European tour taking in Britain, Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
It was commissioned by the Campo arts centre in the Belgium city of Ghent, which is famous for its work with children.
"When they asked me to work on a series of child plays for adults I said to myself, 'Belgium plus children -- I am going to do something on Dutroux'," Rau said.
"The Dutroux case brings together all Belgium's big traumas: its dysfunctional elites, the end of the mining industry and the loss of its colonies.
"Dutroux's father was born in the Belgian Congo and lived there till he was six," he added, and the family also lived in Burundi.
The production begins with Congo's declaration of independence and ends with the funerals of Dutroux's victims, at which Belgian politicians were jeered.
Dutroux's lawyer revealed last year that the killer had planned to "kidnap many children" and keep them in an "underground city" in an abandoned mine shaft near his home in Charleroi, in the southwest of the country.
- Outrage continues -
Rau, 40, whose 2011 drama documentary "Hate Radio" about the Rwandan genocide was an international hit, said the play deals directly with the story of only one of the victims.
Sabine Dardenne was 12 when she was found alive in a cellar close to Charleroi days after Dutroux was finally arrested in August 1996.
She is played by nine-year-old Rachel Dedain in the drama.
Rather than a reconstruction of the case, Rau said he used its horrors to examine Belgium society, which was outraged by the official incompetence that dogged the case.
One of the child actors plays Dutroux's father, another the king of Belgium and others police officers investigating the disappearances of the girls.
Dutroux had already served prison sentences for multiple rapes when he became the prime suspect in the disappearance of two friends aged eight and nine in Liege in June 1995.
But he wasn't arrested for 14 months by which time four other girls had disappeared.
Both he and his wife Michelle Martin -- a former primary school teacher -- had previously been jailed for kidnapping children in the 1980s.
The fact that the case took the best part of a decade to be tried only increased public anger.
More than 300,000 people took to the streets of Brussels in the so-called "white march" after Dutroux's arrest to express their fury at the government and the justice system.
Many still believe he lay at the heart of a paedophile ring that encompassed politicians, judges and policemen.
Controversies about evidence being withheld only added to conspiracy theories.
The play's title is inspired by a composition by Igor Stravinsky, and has no connection with a 1970 Hollywood movie of that name which starred Jack Nicholson.