Back in 2012 Valentijn Dhaenens wowed Edinburgh with his show Bigmouth – a dynamic and insightful history of oratory from Ancient Greece to the present day. It was a simple but effective and innovative idea as Dhaenens rigged up a series of microphones (incidentally against a backdrop that made the set look like a laboratory of sorts), a complex machinery of filters and pedals that let him create complex symphonies with his voice alone. In that piece Dhaenens displayed his distinct power of mimicry and his captivating singing skills, and at the same time made the point that the effect of political speeches was contained in the form of their delivery as much as it was in the content itself. If not more.
Since then Edinburgh could witness Dhaenens’ other foreys into voice-based theatre-making including a verbatim piece about the First World War – Smallwar (2014) and, with his colleagues from Skagen, a piece based on the testimonies of petty criminals – Pardon/In Cuffs (2015).
Unsung is an altogether different kind of theatrical experiment for Dhaenens. Here he goes back to the tradition of dramatic monologue and invents a politician in the throes of an election campaign and an extra-marital affair – all at the same time. The story hinges on the balance between the private and the public and just how much a politician needs to give away in order to win popular support. In a way the aim for Dhaenens seems to be making the point opposite to the one made in Bigmouth – namely, that it is content rather than form that ought to matter in representational democracy. The show leads to a powerful and unexpected finale in which our Politician gets to make the kind of candid speech never really heard from politicians otherwise. However, the route towards it is not always as smooth as one might expect.
Dhaenens has a kind of command as a performer that means he can create significant effect with minimal effort: he frequently comments on his characterisation as a performer with skilled, subtle and deliberate pauses and inflections. He is a master comedian too – you will rarely see someone hump a flowerpot with as much flair as Dhaenens does, all in the interest of a good old laugh. However, there are also moments that just don’t gel for me in this show. This might be mostly linked to his departure from the more courageous experimental verbatim performance into the safety of a fictionalised world using pathos and cliches to make its points. At the end of the day, it is Dhaenens himself who is more fascinating to watch than Dhaenens pretending to be someone else – however fascinating and complex and interesting that someone else purports to be.
Unsung is on at Summerhall until 26th August. More info here.