One of the fly-by-night smashes of last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Bigmouth is the gabby creation of SKaGeN, the other experimental critical darlings of the Netherlands. Directed and performed by the inhumanely talented Valentijn Dhaenens, it’s a multi-lingual collage of world-changing oratory collected from the courtroom appearances, battlefield rallyings and canonised speeches of the great, the good and the infamous bastards. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more virtuosic performance than Dhaenens’, his scrupulous imitations are consistently astounding, but this is a show that’s less than the sum of its finely wrought parts.
Dhaenens stands before a table of angled microphones, some that distort his voice with tinny overdrive, others that reverberate with an authentic Capitol Hill echo. Behind him a projected blackboard lists the names of his subjects: King Baudouin, Martin Luther King, both the George Bushes, Socrates. Moving between the mics, Dhaenens delivers snatches of their most famous speeches in stunning impersonations, switching effortlessly between languages and registers, a surtitle screen translating when necessary.
The first few routines are breath-taking, the next couple impressive, but by the half-way mark they begin to feel distinctly like turns, like displays of flair rather than part of a cohesive show. For a performance so focussed on the power of argument, Bigmouth feels tongue-tied when it comes to driving home its own thesis. The speeches are chosen to reflect and to contrast one another, to demonstrate the dangerously glassy power of rhetoric, to create devastating comparisons through contextual trickery. There’s a sinister magic in finding unexpected common ground with Bin Laden moments after wincing in revulsion at General Patton’s boisterous warmongering.
It quickly becomes clear, however, that it’s a mechanism of limited scope. The skittering potted history of the civil-rights movement leaves the same emotional resonation as the George Bush Jr. medley, and as the voices flow free from their anchor-points in history, they begin to feel more and more like empty air, however hot Dhaenens blows them. There are musical interludes crafted from looped and pitch-bent phrasings, and they’re pretty and stirring, as if James Blake has gone all political on us, but they lack depth and their connectivity to the whole is generally shallow.
There’s some serious gravitas to Dhaenens staging, complemented by Jeroen Wuyts’ walloping sound design, but truthfully its 80 minute running time leaves you hungry for some digression – for a puncturing of the swollen mass of grandiloquence. Dhaenens has intentionally emptied himself from Bigmouth, filling himself entirely with voices from the past, but in doing so he reduces the possibilities of his performance to those of a well-ordered YouTube playlist. The big mouth becomes a Dictaphone long before the half-hearted fourth-wall breaking of its climax, and the track-list of great names begins to look more like a threat than a promise.
Dhaenens’ talent may be reason enough to catch Bigmouth, and certain moments are spellbinding, particularly the quieter and more personal ones such as King Baudouin’s abdication address, but there’s more skill than there is art on display here. There’s not enough content in its unmasking of form.