BigMouth, the powerhouse show that Valentijn Dhaenens premiered at the 2012 Fringe, was all about oratorical sway. Now SmallWaR offers a bleak snapshot of what those speeches really mean for ordinary men and women. Joining the rash of World War I centenary productions, the show discusses both the First World War and conflict in general through the voices of those who experienced it firsthand.
Inspired by a collection of war testimony and owing a heavy debt to the likes of Johnny Got His Gun, SmallWaR offers up various fragments of conflict and its aftermath. These are expressed by Dhaenens in the guise of a nurse, sitting or standing at the front of the Traverse’s wide stage, and by the shadowy soldier figures (all recorded copies of Dhaenens) who appear as projections on the screen that slices across the playing space.
In this ghostly hospital ward, voices rise and fall; reflections, letters home, quiet howls of despair. These scraps of found text are knitted together by the nurse, commenting calmly on the horror she witnesses around her, and by the thoughts and dreams of a man who has lost all means of movement and communication, barely remaining alive in his hospital bed – a medical “miracle”.
As a companion piece to BigMouth, immediately linked by the same unsettling rendition of “Nature Boy”, SmallWaR makes a chilling follow-up. Here lies the result of all that rhetoric: broken bodies and tortured minds. And all that talk of democracy and honour and glory means nothing when staring death in the face. As Dhaenens dully intones, “nobody dies for something”.
Yet this all feels surprisingly distant. There is certainly rage in SmallWaR’s sentiment, but not in its cool execution. Dhaenens’ sleek, controlled delivery is pitch perfect as a series of persuasive leaders in BigMouth or a slippery politician in Ontroerend Goed’s Fight Night, but here it jars with the intent of his words. There are moments of quiet, haunting impact, but Dhaenens never reaches across the gulf between stage and audience to infect us with the fury that radiates from his text.
“If I had a mouth, I would scream,” a disembodied voice tells us through the speakers. Dhaenens has the means to speak, but his is a resigned sigh rather than a yell of anger.