Directed and performed by Valentijn Dhaenens. Produced by SKaGeN and Richard Jordan Productions, presented by the Cultch. At the York Theatre on Thursday, February 11. Continues until February 21
Wow. BigMouth is a mind-blowing celebration of the power of the human voice.
Belgian solo performer Valentijn Dhaenens drew on over 1,000 speeches to compile this script, ranging from the ancient Greeks to George W. Bush, and spanning the political spectrum from Osama bin Laden to Ann Coulter. In this diversity, Dhaenens found the same recurring human preoccupations.
There’s freedom: Patrice Lumumba celebrating Congolese independence in 1960. There’s loss and sorrow: Pericles’s funeral oration from 431 B.C. There’s pride, principle, and a lot of political manipulation. At one point, Dhaenens splices together late–World War II speeches by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and U.S. Army general George S. Patton as they rally their respective troops. In Dhaenens’s seamless transitions, Goebbels is all ingratiating charm and Patton is all macho bluster, but they demand the same thing of their listeners: courageous sacrifice and total annihilation of the enemy in hopes of a brighter future.
And there’s humour—albeit grim—here, too: Dhaenens is very funny as Frank Vanhecke, leader of a racist Belgian political party, apologizing for his imperfect English while he tries to explain European politics to a group of right-wing Americans, and as George W. Bush going dangerously off-book in his 2002 state of the union address.
Dhaenens’s virtuosic switching between voices, mannerisms, and languages (he speaks about half a dozen here) is a huge part of the show’s success, but it’s his musical voice that makes BigMouth so compelling theatrically. To transition between speeches, Dhaenens builds aural collages by singing a phrase into a microphone, looping it, and adding layers of harmony until we’re engulfed in a gorgeous sonic structure.
Some of these pieces evoke a specific historical period, others set the mood, but all of them are bewitching. In one memorable sequence, Dhaenens creates haunting irony by underscoring a rapid-fire montage of late-20th-century U.S. political and civil-rights leaders with a snippet of West Side Story’s “America” and recurring gunshot sounds.
The show’s design concept is simplicity honed to perfection: a row of microphones sits on a long table in front of Dhaenens and a blackboard upstage lists the speakers’ names and dates—a handy reference that will send you to the Internet after the show.
Dhaenens is in his fourth year of touring BigMouth, and though it is polished, it feels fresh and inspiring. Go, listen, think, and marvel at the power of what Dhaenens calls “this little hole in our face”.