BigMouth and SmallWaR directed by and starring the one man powerhouse that is Valentijn Dhaenens, are performance pieces with text based around the theme of war. The first a tribute to famous worldwide speeches and dictators, and the second to written word from its surrounding inhabitants and soldiers.
Both stand alone pieces of work at roughly 1hr and 10 minutes each, but carrying on as a sequel.
The Pit theatre in the Barbican centre is harder to get to than I anticipated, and as it suggests, is in the depths and the lowest point of the performance centre. However, it serves as a perfect minimalist studio space for creative performances. Sitting roughly 200 people, it is a black open space mapped out by black backdrop curtains, making the performance fairly intimate for the audience. This was perfect in Dhaenens’ case as it was just himself, 9 microphones, and us.
BigMouth shows a stand alone structure spanning the width of the space. Nine equally spaced microphones – each one completely different in design, effect and ability to the next, broken up by five highball glasses filled with water atop a elongated table. We later find out this is the canvas and differentiation to his bipolar character’s portrayal. Hanging above is a projection of a green chalkboard with famous speakers names and the dates of those speeches scribbled by hand. This selection went chronologically from 399 BC – 2007, and includes the likes of Pericles, Osama Bin laden, and George W Bush.
We understand that Dhaenens is going to tackle each text at a time, rubbing them out after doing so – some by impersonation, some sung, some differentiated by accent, some by language with subtitles (French, German, Italian). But each piece is completely bespoke, by heart, and executed ridiculously well.
Whilst performing these speeches, the audience become aware that regardless of time or objective, each speech roughly says the same or directly opposing thing, with an uncanny likeness to one another – a factor that I found fascinating.
The speeches performed are interspersed with music that Dhaenens loops and creates himself accapella – throwing at times four-part harmonies and an array of counter melodies and background noise cacophony.
He explains “I knew I wanted the songs between the speeches to be produced only by my voice to add to the idea of what human vocal chords are capable of doing” and reiterates how soundscape and noise can be used to create an unbreakable ominous atmosphere. A demonstration of the ability and complete power one’s voice can have. Spoiler alert – there’s a fantastic guitar-less guitar solo, that would put Ritchie Sambora’s WahWah to shame.
He uses songs and soundscapes throughout to oppose, mimic, help emote, or make the texts comical, only to be explained as absolute genius. A highlight personally being an eerie rendition of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and a parody of America.
SmallWaR is a sequel to BigMouth and was developed secondly after touring the first production. It is the companion piece as a reverse of these dictators and their inspirational or threatening speeches that Dhaenens felt he had an obligation to show, and is again a spoken word performance of direct text from surrounding war victims.
We enter to a pulsating two piece drone of a man’s voice playing on loop. A projector screen now spanning the width of the floor space showing at first silhouette. Dhaenens takes on the physicality of a wartime nurse, whilst the projected screen allows him to act duologues in real time with himself as her patients. We hear extremely deep and meaningful pieces of text, with absolute brutality in their truth. Accounts of amputation, missing loved ones, and even the excitement and apprehension of war, he again through the mediums in SmallWaR performs these texts with such vibrancy and beauty. This time with the likes of ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’ and ‘Smile’.
A noticeably touching end with the names and dates of the texts we have just heard scrolling as credits and as tributes to the real life authors. An incredibly haunting performance that imprinted on the audience in silence and in awe.
SKaGeN theatre company is established as one of the leading Flemish theatre companies of its generation, and clearly prides itself in the upmost sophisticated and thought provoking work. With bilingual, power houses like Dhaenens commanding the stage as a representation of the company, it only intrigues me more to their work.
All in all a real masterclass in culture, a demonstration of the power of the voice and it’s capability, a schooling in famous dictators and their texts, a bespoke perspective on war, but most importantly: a reminder of the monstrosity it beholds worldwide.
BigMouth and SmallWaR are playing The Pit in The Barbican centre 13 – 17 September. For more information and tickets, see the Barbican Centre website.
Photo: Maya Wilsens