Valentijn Dhaenens
Valentijn Dhaenens. Credit: Maya Wilsens

At the York Theatre until February 21, 2016

Posted February 14, 2016

I’m batting a thousand with two amazing, one-man, back-to-back shows: Robert Lepage’s 887 and Valentijn Dhaenens’s BigMouth.

While 887 is quite closely autobiographical, BigMouth is not, although a lot can be inferred about Dhaenens, Belgian writer/director/performer, by the choices he makes.

His process in creating BigMouth is fascinating: over the course of a year, Dhaenens promised himself to read at least one famous speech every day. In no particular order he read almost a thousand speeches and eventually selected and memorized significant speeches of The Grand Inquisitor (1583), Socrates (399 BC), Pericles (circa 499 BC), Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Patrice Lumumba and another dozen celebrities right up to calm, creepily rational Obama bin Laden.

When he reflected on his choices, a theme emerged and it can be summed up in, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country”) from the Odes of Roman poet Horace. Later, however, it was used ironically by Wilfred Owen, condemning World War I.

In BigMouth, Dhaenens illustrates how war-mongering can be, as in the case of Goebbels, delivered so elegantly and persuasively, it almost makes sense: the sad but necessary shedding of the blood of young men for the security of the fatherland. Dhaenens goes back and forth between soft-spoken, avuncular Goebbels and George S. Patton who almost froths at the mouth about “American men” and stepping up to the plate to protect America. The messages are strangely similar – not in style but definitely in content.

Valentijn Dhaenens
Valentijn Dhaenens

BigMouth is a potent anti-war message that grows like a slow burn right up to Ann Coulter, an American lawyer and Right Wing political commentator who fans the flames against LGBTs, Moslems, ‘illegal’ immigrants and, sometimes, women.

There are some speeches that don’t appear to fit the mold, notably the very strange, temporary abdication speech of Belgian King Baudouin, a devout Catholic, who could not in good conscience approve an abortion law passed by Parliament. He stepped aside for one day, the Bill passed, and he resumed his royal duties the following day. Baudouin’s speech – a passionate defence of the rights of the unborn – was in direct, dynamic and heartfelt contrast to those advocating killing on the battlefield.

In a conservative suit, Dhaenens paces, walks or rushes back and forth on a shadowy stage behind a long table set up with seven microphones. It looks and feels like a televised political debate except, of course, most of the speakers are long gone. He alters and varies his voice: a thin, quavery voice for Socrates; a cheery, self-effacing yet hateful address by Belgian Frank Vanhecke who in 2007 was arrested after giving a speech on the “Islamisation of Europe”; an angry strident voice for Coulter; a loopy, off-the-wall speech by George W. Bush to a bunch of kids. Dhaenens even introduces Marilyn Monroe making a brief, breathy appearance singing Happy Birthday to JFK.

Music, made by Dhaenens’ digitally altered voice, adds tremendous tension between speeches.

Valentijn Dhaenens
Valentijn Dhaenens

Eventually, and without flagging, Dhaenens invokes Nat King Cole and sings, a cappella, “There was a boy/A very strange enchanted boy”. After seventy-five minutes of listening to more than two millennia of incitements to violence in the name of patriotism and nationalism – fuelled by intolerance – we get the clincher: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn/Is just to love and be loved in return.”

BigMouth is an extraordinary performance by Valentijn Dhaenens, produced by SkaGeN (Belgium) and Richard Jordan Productions (UK), and presented by The Cultch. BigMouth. Big performance. Big message.