Bigmouth (5 stars)

This article is from 2012


Enthralling roller-coaster through history and its (in)humanity by one-man powerhouse Valentijn Dhaenens

‘History not merely touches on language, but takes place in it.’ This quote from the German philosopher Adorno could summarise the underlying themes of SkaGeN’s Bigmouth. The show makes the (perhaps not obvious connection) between figures of great historical importance, among them Joseph Goebbels, Pericles, Flemish separatist leader Frank Vanhecke, Osama bin Laden and Socrates. Director/performer powerhouse Valentijn Dhaenens (who starred in the Belgian tragicomedy The Misfortunates) pulls these historical names and their associated philosophies and movements into one frightening whole, evoking the power of rhetoric to underline the similarity between mankind throughout the ages, and to draw a steady comparison between their methods and madness.

In the atmospheric former lecture theatre of Summerhall’s Demonstration Room Dhaenens embarks on an enthralling 90-minute crash-course in the inhumanity of civilisation, and a lesson in the enduring power of rhetoric. Speaking fluently in four different languages, Dhaenens is a quavering, sage Socrates in the Athenian court, a sometimes maniacal George W. Bush, a good-humoured version of Vanhecke, the Congolese independence leader Lumumba and a scarily likeable Osama bin Laden. Luckily for us, the 23 or so different speakers, along with the dates of their speeches, are crossed off one-by-one on a digital blackboard behind Dhaenens, so our appreciation is not hampered by incomprehension.

And this is not a headachy history lesson, despite the flood of names, but somehow, sheer, hair-raising entertainment. We get a charismatic Goebbels interweaved with a hell-for-leather General George Patten, both speaking in 1945, and King Badouin of Belgium’s 1990 abdication oration juxtaposed with Lumumba’s infamously controversial speech in June 1960. At times the use of music, crooning, singing and echo amplify and embellish the already intricate tapestry of speech fragmentation. In this oratory rollercoaster we are compelled not only to wonder continually at the sheer talent of Dhaenens, but more importantly, to question the concept of progress throughout civilisation, and to ask ourselves on what fragile foundations our deeply ingrained, black-and-white values actually stand.

Summerhall, 0845 874 3001, until 26 Aug, noon, £10 (£8).


  • 5 stars

Valentijn Dhaenens pays tribute to 2,500 years of oration. Using fragments of well-known speeches, he shows that the tricks of the trade hardly changed. He who picks his words well can turn the weakest argument into the strongest. The absolute truth doesn't exist. It is just a pretty lie for those who desire world power…