By Valentijn Dhaenens
SKaGen and Richard Jordan production
Presented by David Mirvish
East Vancouver Cultural Centre, Vancouver
February 11 to 21, 2016
A unique opportunity to witness the power of words from the mouth of a skilled performer, Big Mouth resumes its Canadian tour on Friday in Vancouver.
Working on his own to develop his first one-man show, Valentijn Dhaenens, a Belgian stage and screen actor, read more than a thousand speeches, going back to the ancient Greeks and forward to the 21st century. “I tried not to force speeches to relate to one another but simply put them in stacks hoping that one day they would start communicating with each other,” Dhaenens writes in his notes for the show.
The one-man show that emerged is not meant as political or social commentary. The associations that Dhaenens found between, for example Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels and American general George S. Patton, urging their countrymen into war, make a fascinating demonstration of the art of manipulation. Big Mouth captivates not just by the words, which even unspoken retain their power, but by the way that Dhaenens chooses to replicate those speeches.
Intercutting between Goebbels and Patton, the actor delivers Goebbels’ incendiary words, in calm, hushed tones (“a cry of vengeance will arise from their throats making the enemy tremble with fear”) as if he were a university professor giving a lecture. Jumping to another mike, Dhaenens gives Patton’s crude words the full gestural treatment (“the very idea of losing is hateful to American men”), flinging his arms out like a cowboy at the rodeo.
The artist calls Big Mouth a “speech machine.” When it first played in Belgium, it was all in Dutch and delivered in lecture auditoriums where he had a long podium with microphones set up. The touring show reproduces this long table fitted with a variety of mikes from different eras and a screen above that works like a blackboard displaying the authors of the oratories he’s enacting.
Jumping up on the table to sit cross-legged, Dhaenens sends out a message from Osama bin Laden from 1996, making the el Qaeda kingpin sound as reasonable as any leader protecting his own territory. Musical interludes throw another element into the mix. As Dhaenens begins to sing into a microphone, say Vera Lynn’s “We’ll meet again,” light and sound designer Jeroen Wuyts, works the soundboard to loop Dhaenens’ crooning into a choral pattern. It’s all live.
In his Q&A following the 85-minute show, Dhaenens confesses that he has tried from time to time to substitute more recent oratory – Barack Obama’s among them – but such insertions upset the dynamics of the piece, which has no speeches more recent than 2007 (from Belgian right-wing nationalist/racist Frank Vanhecke). It’s easy to see how Big Mouth gained a life of its own, in which the audience makes its own associations. Near the end, for instance, we hear the words of Ann Coulter, American conservative commentator, sounding much more bellicose than the Republican president of the time, George W. Bush.
Even given the set script of Big Mouth, every show must be different, depending on the inflections Dhaenens gives to the languages – Dutch, German, English, French – of his delivery. Nicola Sacco’s 1927 Italian-accented wail to the court prior to his execution interacts with Socrates’ similar address, in a hoarse whisper, to his judges in 399 BC in a way that will strike each listener differently.
The magic of Big Mouth derives from its author’s first insight: how so much can be accomplished, how millions can be moved in a new direction, with the vocal chords and a small hole in a human face.