Big Mouth

Constructed by Valentijn Dhaenens
SKaGeN
The Pit at the Barbican

Valentijn Dhaenens Credit: Maya Wilsens
Valentijn Dhaenens Credit: Maya Wilsens
Valentijn Dhaenens Credit: Maya Wilsens

In the later section of the extraordinary theatrical composition Big Mouth, Valentijn Dhaenens climbs onto a table and sits cross-legged in front of a pair of microphones.

In a sad slightly hoarse voice, he begins to speak softly the words of Osama Bin Laden explaining the "events that affected my soul in a direct way started in 1982 when the Americans permitted the Israelis to invade the Lebanon."

He expresses his grief at the terrible deaths and injuries this caused to Palestinian children and his sorrow at the American theft of his country’s resources.

It is unsettling for the audience to find they are sympathising with someone they probably regarded as one of the great villains of history.

That is the point of the production which presents speeches in such a way as to make us think critically about the way they might manipulate emotions or encourage particular actions.

This is most evident in a sequence which switches between Joseph Goebbels gently persuading the German people to give up such things as hairdressing for the war effort and General George Patton’s deranged cartoon hysteria demanding death in the national interest, because "American men love a winner" even if he is dead.

Each speech is performed before a long table on which are set five pairs of microphones as if prepared for a press conference. Above the table is projected a blackboard with the list of speakers. Each name is wiped after their speech is completed.

The speeches are accompanied by Jeroen Wuyts’s often disturbing soundscape consisting of taped loops of Valentijn Dhaenens singing along with the rhythms he bangs out on the table.

The most exciting section of the show is the long journey through American history with barely spoken snippets from a line of assassinated speakers each ending in a gunshot. Between the speeches, we hear the jaunty version of lines from Sondheim’s song "America": "I like to be in America! Ev'rything free in America".

There are longer speeches from the Bush father and son. Bush senior tells his folksy story of an American soldier good naturedly accepting the surrender of an Iraqi soldier in the first Gulf war with the kindly words "you’re good".

It is followed by the black American activist Louis Farrakhan describing many ways America has not been good for black people and Native Americans.

This remarkable production will chime with the worries and suspicions many people have about political leaders and their organisations. It is a compassionate, sensitive performance of the speeches but some might find it tending towards cynicism.

The show ends quietly with Valentijn Dhaenens sitting away from the table of speeches singing unaccompanied the haunting Nature Boy with its final plea:

"The greatest thing you'll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return."

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna