Reviews Edinburgh Published 21 August 2012


Summerhall ⋄ 19th-26th August 2012

2,500 years of oratory.

Lois Jeary

The printed word is paper thin; the greatest orators throughout time have shown that it is in the mouths of men where words assume the power to change hearts, minds and the course of history. Thus on paper it is easy to see why SKaGeN’s Bigmouth may seem like a relatively straightforward piece of theatre: a solo performer standing in front of a row of microphones and delivering a medley of texts compiled from 2,500 years of political, judicial, social and religious speeches. Yet it is in performance, and the skilled hands and mouth of Belgian virtuoso Valentijn Dhaenens, that this deceptively simple idea of one man and a few microphones morphs into an electrifying and transcendent piece of art.

From Socrates to Malcolm X, Patrice Lumumba to JFK, Bigmouth presents us with characters and occasions in history where the art of rhetoric has meant the difference between life and death. Although it would have been interesting to the study to have had a few more female voices represented, it remains a compelling way to draw lessons about humanity from global history. Passages spoken in English and a number of surtitled foreign tongues are contrasted with each other to emphasise the universal language of rhetoric. On this stage Joseph Goebbels and General Patton stand side by side, the former softly outlining his case for total war with creeping menace, the latter issuing a ballsy rallying cry to his troops. Both are chilling, and yet the fact that it proves almost impossible to differentiate the moral principles of the two shows how fear and aggression are common currency across ages, continents and civilisations.

There is a sort of sorcery at work in Valentijn Dhaenens’ performance. He is a shapeshifter, transforming and mutating in front of our very eyes while cloaked in a misleading suit of benign grey. Sometimes the change is minute – a leg bent awkwardly here, a grimace there – and sometimes it is more pronounced, such as when he twists himself into the shackles of Italian anarchist Niccola Sacco as he pleads for his life in the face of U.S. justice. Each and every time the effect is spellbinding: Dhaenens is truly the fabled actor as blank canvas. Never before has a man quietly sitting down and crossing his legs felt like such a provocative act; that you then come to find yourself sympathising with the words of Osama Bin Laden testament to the understated fairness Dhaenens breathes into every word.

Bigmouth understands that while words are strong, music and song can be equally powerful weapons for those wielding emotional or political power. Between speeches Dhaenens chants, croons and calls into the microphones to create a semi-recorded lo-fi symphony that loops under the spoken word. After bombardment by the uneasy logic of Belgian King Baudouin’s refusal to sign a law legalising abortion, or a separatist politician’s bigoted anti-immigration stance, these musical safety valves should allow the audience a moment to breathe. Yet the words of Kurt Cobain and Stephen Sondheim earn their place amongst history’s most renowned rhetoricians, and where the speeches appeal to the intellect, the music demands a more primal response.

At the piece’s culmination feedback shrieks over the bumbling idiocy of George W. Bush and it becomes apparent that these legendary orators were human all along, vulnerable and absurd. We are left with just the ghosts behind the microphones. After centuries of power games and lifetimes of destructive anger their spirits have a final, breathtaking message for us. It is a message of love, of humanity, which like this entire performance will render you utterly speechless.


Lois Jeary

Lois holds an MA in Text and Performance, taught jointly between RADA and Birkbeck. In addition to directing and assistant directing for theatre, she also works as a freelance television news journalist for Reuters and has previously contributed to The Guardian.

Bigmouth Show Info

Produced by SKaGeN

Directed by Valentijn Dhaenens

Cast includes Valentijn Dhaenens




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