Brighton Festival 2013
Belgian artist Valentijn Dhaenens of SKaGeN theatre attracted a full house at Brighton Corn Exchange for his extraordinary performance in ‘Bigmouth’. In this original and visionary piece Dhaenens performed speeches ranging from Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor to Osama bin Laden via Socrates and Lumumba with vocal and physical mastery that held the audience spellbound throughout.
The stage design is simple but effective. A bank of microphones is laid out along a table across the stage. Surtitles are displayed above when speeches are delivered in languages other than English, and there is a green screen where the names and dates of speakers are listed, and electronically ‘rubbed out’ as the performance progresses.
I had no real idea what to expect from this show. I knew it paid ‘tribute to 2,500 years of oration’. I hoped it would sustain my interest. It did so much more than that. I shall be thinking about this performance and its impact for a long time.
Part of Dhaenens’ skill was in the research and the putting together of these different extracts of speeches so that their themes, the echoes between them and the messages conveyed were repeated, challenged and questioned from different angles. There was no finger-pointing as the extracts were allowed to speak plainly for themselves. It was particularly revealing to hear Dhaenens use the softly spoken tones of Osama bin Laden in a context that allowed us to really hear what he was saying. It made me realise how much the media’s use of bin Laden’s own iconic image has become a barrier to hearing what he had to say. But this show made clear how important it is for us to be aware of the way words are used to lead us to war, to celebrate victory, to rally the oppressed, to demonstrate power. A chilling extract that juxtaposes Goebbels and Patton in 1945 is a clear illustration of the way opposing sides can use almost the same words to label cowards and heroes for their own ends.
Speeches were arranged in thematic sequences that included imperialism and its weaknesses, oppression and its consequences, religion, war and the value of human life. Sequences were linked and balanced by chants, songs, hand drumming, live looping of harmonies with Dhaenens’ own voice in ways that also spoke to the themes within the piece. This was a very personal, passionate project that resulted in a stunning piece of theatre.
Lighting and sound design by Jeroen Wuyts underlined the impact of Dhaenens’ self-directed performance.
SkaGen is a leading Flemish theatre company of which Dheanens is a co-founder. This piece goes on tour to Plymouth, Warwick and Bristol and then to the Soho Theatre in July. Get your tickets now.