BigMoutH (Brisbane Powerhouse and SKaGeN/Richard Jordan Productions)
Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre
February 25 – 27
The Visy Theatre stage is simply set with a long table containing arrangement of five sets of microphones spaced out on top. Behind, a screen appears like a blackboard listing the speechmakers to be portrayed, from Pericles to Anne Coulter (the only female), in director and performer Valentijn Dhaenens’ presentation of characters and occasions in history where rhetoric has spoken beyond the circumstance.
As each speaker, Dhaenens is absorbing, inhabiting individual personas and capturing the cadence of their deliveries, evident even in the speeches that are performed in languages others than English (subtitled for audience assistance). And although he never breaks from the characters, it is easy to track the show’s progress through the list of orators; as each section is complete it is erased from the blackboard backdrop as he moves seamlessly between characters.
Although short on gender balance, speeches represent an interesting selection from an array of political persuasions from the conservative to the radical (think George Bush and Osama Bin Laden). Most are American, with hints at an over-arching anti-American discourse, but there is also the fascinating inclusion of Belgian historical figures, including Patrice Lumumba’s rally for Congolese independence and the abdication of King Baudouin due to his moral disagreement with his government’s decision to legalise abortion.
What is most striking about the selections are the contrasts presented. The most prominent illustration comes through one of the longest segments, early in the show, which sees Dhaenes alternates between Hitler’s Minister for Propaganda Joseph Goebbels and the American General George S Patton. While both are essentially attempting to inspire listeners towards wartime sacrifice, Paton appears off-puttingly overzealous, bombastic and blasphemous in comparison to the calm, controlled, soft-spoken and humble style of the Nazi propagandist.
These moments of commonality not only showcase Dhaenens’ commitment and skill as a performer, put provide sense of deliberate connectedness of the specifically-chosen texts that appears missing in other sections, making it hard work at times for the for the audience to make sense of it. Indeed, this is not a show of light-entertainment, even when some of its speeches are interrupted with acapella snippets of songs like Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘America’ from “West Side Story”, which appears as part of a Robert F Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcom X mashup.
If there is a point to the show it is not always clear from within its heavy content of exploration of 2,500 years of oratory. Even so, Dhaenes provides a powerful performance thanks to his tremendous stage presence in making his chosen orators again be heard, especially in his juxtaposition of enemies and allies. “BigMoutH” is a unique show of an essentially simple idea, effectively realised. While it may be more about the controversy of the messages of its chosen texts than the eloquence of their words, it is easy for audience members to appreciate the attempts to wield emotional power, even if unfamiliar with the speakers or their contexts.
Photo c/o – http://www.skagen.be/