Edinburgh audiences have previously had a chance to see the work of Belgian SKaGeN theatre company mostly through the solo work of Valentijn Dhaenens – specifically his shows BigmoutH and SmallWaR. Dhaenens is a talented and hugely charismatic performer, whose forte, as seen in these two productions, could be best described as voice art. On both occasions his departure point had been samples of found text, largely oral testimonies and records of public speeches. What distinguishes Dhaenaens’ approach to the form we have come to call verbatim theatre, is his deliberate emphasis on the potential artistry of this genre rather than its apparent documentariness. In the first instance, his verbatim piece became a complex sound installation and in the second a choir of video screens – a sophisticated technological multiplication of his own resources as an individual artist was deployed in both cases to push the boundaries of the form he was working with.
In his latest piece Dhaenens returns to the more traditional technologies of theatre-making: a table two chairs, a revolving podium and the intermittent live musical accompaniment. More strikingly, we also get to meet two other co-founder members of SKaGeN – equally captivating performers Clara van den Broek and Korneel Hamers – and witness the seamlessness and elegance of their ensemble play. The content this time are testimonies collected from the initial hearings of petty criminals in the public prosecutor’s office, moments after they had been caught in the act and some days before they formally enter the court. Narratively, the piece is a panoply of character portraits, their quirks and vulnerabilities and the various ways in which they choose to explain their actions before the law – sometimes resigned, sometimes desperate, charming, deceitful, fearful, often, though not always, fighting for survival.
The crucial aspect of this production is the acute and explicit severance of the style of the text from the style of its theatrical representation. In the initial scene the public prosecutor played by van den Broek is wearing an elegant satin gown. Incrementally throughout the show the actions accompanying the naturalistic dialogues are purposeful and surreal exaggerations of the potential subliminal content – a con artist is doing a three-point shuffle as he delivers his testimony, a prosecutor tenderly kisses a criminal to whom she has taken a liking – to the extent where they become pure metaphor. Complex dances, wrestling matches and illusionist acts emerge from these seemingly prosaic exchanges with such appeal and lyrical finesse that they certainly make the audience more elated than they could have hoped given the subject matter of the piece.
Pardon / In Cuffs appears a little less ingenious, less flashy and mind-blowing than Dhaenens’ previous creations. However, for the existing fans this show will serve as a useful primer for understanding the key underlying principles of Dhaenens’ theatricality, showing that the high tech nature of his other work is largely instrumental rather than being its defining feature. And if this is your first encounter with SKaGen’s work, you are guaranteed to be suitably enraptured, and you might even find yourself letting out a little gasp of delight by the end.