Valentijn Dhaenens
SKaGeN and Richard Jordan Productions Ltd in a co-production with De Tijd & STUK
Soho Theatre

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

An eighty-minute compilation of political speeches that cover 2,500 years of human history from ancient Greece up to the present day, this is a real tour-de-force on the part of solo performer Valentijn Dhaenens. Compilation isn’t really the word, collage perhaps, and at times montage would be more accurate for some speeches are dramatically intercut with others from the same date.

From the rhetoric of Pericles' funeral peroration for Athens' war dead in 439 BC to the incoherencies of George W Bush post 9/11, this is a fascinating record of the way in which people have set out their case or sought to sway opinion.

It produces many surprises, not least the juxtaposition of a soft-spoken and reasonable sounding Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels calling for further sacrifices from the German people and the prosecution of total war against American General George Patten’s savage exhortation to US troops to massacre the enemy.

A long table with an array of microphones is the setting; a video screen above bears the names and dates of all the speakers, each one being erased when their oration is ended, a very useful identification for few of these speeches are easily recognized by a modern audience and for those that might be, Dhaenens does not attempt an imitation of their voices in delivery.

For a couple of speeches that he delivers in Dutch and French, there are additional surtitles, but most are given in English. With a mixture of live and recorded sound Dhaenens uses humming, a musical wailing and songs to give a sense of date, a complex blending designed along with the lighting by Jeroen Wuyts.

Making these sounds sometimes produces some weird facial contortions, but for the most part Dhaenens’s delivery is marked by its concentration and constraint, making subtle change important and giving great force to mounting the table for Louis Farrakhan’s 2005 rallying call to Black Americans or sinking down to squat for Osama bin Laden’s so rational explanation of why he hates America.

There is a chilling logic to such reasoning that is matched by the facts contained in the more hysteric anti-Islamic outbursts of Flemish separatist Frank van Hecke or America’s right wing Ann Coulter.

It begins with three men sentenced to death. First a sixteenth-century Grand Inquisitor addressing a man claiming to be the Messiah who he is sending to be burned as a heretic, then the desperate outcry of anarchist immigrant Nicolo Sacco in 1927, appealing against his dubious conviction and death sentence for a murder of which he claimed total innocence, followed by the earliest of the speeches, philosopher Socrates’ calm words accepting the judgement of the Athenian court in 393 BC.

There is another contrast intercutting King Baudouin’s abdication speech with the optimistic oration of Patrice Lumumba marking the independence of the Congo after nearly a century of Belgian rule, and there is dark comment on 1960s American with a gunshot-interrupted montage of speeches from Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and JFK with added snatches from Muhammed Ali before moving on to Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior.

Responses to oratory are, of course, conditioned by knowing whom the speaker is and, though we have a check list in front of us on screen to identify them, because Valentijn Dhaenens plays each for its best effect on us and not the way one might expect the original speaker to deliver it there are some disconcerting revelations of the way in which what is presented as telling argument can manipulate.

Has this made sound Bigmouth too much like a lesson on political awareness? It is also an engaging and entertaining performance by an accomplished actor.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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