Great political speeches are deftly edited together and powerfully, though sometimes unsubtly, performed in this one man show.
Clad in a simple grey suit, Belgian performer Valentijn Dhaenens appears from the back of the steeply raked seating bank at the Queens Theatre and descends to the stage, which is bare save for a blackboard-like screen bearing the projected details of the speeches he is about to perform, and a table that would not be out of place in a high school science lab. Another screen hangs above the stage on which surtitles are displayed whenever speeches are performed in languages other than English. Seven microphones of various styles are spread across the table, at which Dhaenens stands and begins his performance.
Sometimes singing across carefully looped snatches of his own voice, more often orating, cajoling, blustering and inspiring, in Bigmouth Dhaenens performs some of the great speeches of the western world, bringing to life the words and emotions of Socrates and Malcolm X, Pericles and Patton. Carefully edited among them are commentaries from less inspiring but no less compelling figures: Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels speaks to us, as does conservative pundit Ann Coulter and 21st century boogeyman Osama Bin Laden, their words carefully chosen to highlight the common threads which run throughout the performance.
History is made by language as much as by deeds; words inspire, shape and direct our actions, and in this fascinating performance, Dhaenens shows us the ways that leaders and thinkers down the ages have utilised the power of rhetoric to direct the course of the world.
By deftly cutting between the silky words of Goebbels and the bombast of Patton, the performance reveals the shared intentions of their furious opposition; segueing from King Baudouin of Belgium's denunciation of the 'immorality' of pro-abortion laws to a speech given 30 years earlier by the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba, as his nation cast off the shackles of Belgian colonial rule, subtly and compellingly reveals the hypocrisy of men like Baudouin, whose morals can be ignored when the stakes are high enough. A montage featuring the words of American civil rights pioneers intercut with political figures such as John F Kennedy and his brother Robert is equally electrifying.
Less striking is Dhaenens' own performance, which sometimes slips into melodrama; his take on General Patton is self-consciously and distractingly theatrical, while his restrained performance as Goebbels is let down by a final turn into pantomime villainy at the speech's conclusion. At other times, however, Dhaenens impresses with his versatility and intensity; he is particularly to be applauded for the careful editing and assemblage of the text, which provides a strong foundation for the work as a whole. Coupled with his covers of songs by artists as diverse as Vera Lynn and Nirvana, and the restrained lighting and production design, the overall effect is compelling, despite the occasional distractions of the performer/director's showier moments.
A final word must go to the seats in the Queens Theatre, which are particularly uncomfortable. Two locals I spoke with after the performance - clearly experienced festival-goers - brought their own cushions with them to counteract the bum-numbing conditions of the seating bank; I'll definitely be following their lead for any subsequent Festival productions I attend in this particular venue!
Rating: 3 1/2 stars out of 5
Direction & performance: Valentijn Dhaenens
Light & sound design: Jeroen Wuyts
Projection & design: Sanne Nuyens
Costume design: Barbara De Laere
Production management: Inge Lauwers
Queens Theatre, Adelaide
27 February - 3 March
Adelaide Festival 2014
28 February - 16 March
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What the stars mean?
- Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
- Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
- Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
- Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
- Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
- Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
- Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
- One star: Awful, to be avoided
- Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level