at Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 21st May 2013
Big actions change the course of history. But as those of us with an interest in theatre know, so too can words. And though theatre is probably seen as the lesser cousin to the big speech in terms of political debate, there is no doubt an inherant theatricality in speechifying. The People (i.e. the audience) watch or listen to The Politician (i.e. the performer) and within that time they are either won or lost. Recently, a tutor of mine suggested that all speeches in Shakespeare could essentially be boiled down to one person persuading someone else. And it’s not much different in all the other places we look.
In BigMouth, SKaGeN theatre from Belgium have created something which speaks to the small scale of the theatre auditorium and the large scale of historical world events. For seventy minutes, performer Valentijn Dhaenens takes us through a variety of important speeches, switching between languages, characters and periods as we come to realise that, since the dawn of time, people have always used rhetoric and performance in order to try and get them to believe in the idea they want to get across.
We start off with a darkened, backlit figure, Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, which acts as a way in: the speech is in Dutch, recanted in low tones and seems to have little to say to us, but we learn that to get the full impact we need to focus on how it’s said and in what context. Though translated words appear on the screen above, more can be gained by just experiencing the speech, taking in the mood which has been set and going with it, concentrating on the rhythms and cadences of Dhaenens’ voice.
This is an idea which runs throughout, exemplifying the way in which context changes meaning. Though there is no way of making this small audience genuinely feel like they are anticipating the end of the Second World War or the hedonism of the 90s, music can prime us to feel in something similar. In the above two cases, renditions of We’ll Meet Again and Smells Like Teen Spirit are used to change the tone after the previous speech, thus stirring up emotions which would otherwise be difficult to conjure and demonstrating that words in songs are just as integral to understanding particular Zeitgeists. Dhaenens and his sound designers use live looping (see: Shlomo, but with less beatboxing) in order to build up a sound, leading to full and textured aural moments before the solitude and simplicity of one man talking.
The choice of speeches is also smart, with Aristotle’s plea and Pericles’ speech to his troops featuring early on, setting baselines for the use of rhetoric and its functions. Dhaenens has also been careful not simply to mimic the timbre of the speakers, so that Goebbels’ famous Totaler Krieg speech, originally shouted in a high-pitched rage, is here a softly spoken, kind and warming piece of oratory, subjecting us to the terrifying but subtle ways politicians get the citizens on their side.
As BigMouth progresses, we move away from the seemingly petty problems of Europe to look at America, which is introduced by way of a quickfire round of Bush I, the Kennedys, Reagan, Martin Luther King and Muhammed Ali to the tune of Bernstein and Sondheim’s America. Here, Dhaenens’ delivery becomes less considered and more arrogant, as the shorter, more direct phrasing of these speeches comes to light. Embedded within them is a quiet 1996 polemic from Osama Bin Laden on the dangers of American imperialism (edited from an interview), which astonishingly comes across as one of the most considered, honest and – well – sensible of the night. Bush II follows, with all his outrageous homophobia, brash remarks and moronic musings.
Those we may expect in the show – Hitler, Churchill, Blair – are conspicuous by their absence; some of the most memorable orations speak to us even when they’re not there. What we have instead is a kind of alternative history, as the official story which we are subjected to is subverted and challenged.
Nothing is taken too seriously, either, and beneath the surface throughout is a sharp sense of humour and an acute understanding of the contract between Dhaenens and his audience, as we float in a somewhat unreal space without knowing quite what our role is here. We thus become the unknowing, largely demeaned citizen, subject only to what this speaker in front of us says at the same time as remaining a critical, engaged audience member, aware that the tricks being used here of editing, emphasis and context are just the same as the ones employed by politicians and the media around them. We never really know whether to sit in awe or run in fright, meaning we’re probably not much different from those speakers’ original audiences.