SmallWaR, Traverse Theatre

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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.

Bigmouth, Soho Theatre

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(Disclaimer: this was technically a preview, but to be honest it’s hard to imagine the performance being any more phenomenal than it already is)

About halfway through Bigmouth, with the tiny part of my brain not transfixed by Valentijn Dhaenens’ electrifying performance, I start to muse about framing and juxtaposition. As Dhaenens powers his way through speeches by Goebbels and Socrates, Bin Laden and Reagan, the obvious hits me: this is all just quotation. Bigmouth is essentially a patchwork history of political rhetoric, a series of stitched-together snippets from speeches stretching back thousands of years. The art, however, is in the curation.

In an astonishing hymn to the power of oration, Dhaenens’ extraordinary solo performance recreates extracts from a diverse range of speeches, from calls to arms to elegies to desperate pleas, all using just his own voice and a long table of microphones. Punctuating these speeches are various sequences of voice looping and snatches of song, by turns haunting and bewildering (the most vivid example being a slowed down rendition of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, making it the second time that song has provided one of my favourite theatrical moments after Benedict Andrews’ Three Sisters last year). The combined effect is a dazzling assault of sound, a relentless machine-gun bombardment of words. Except for brief glugs of water, there’s no let up.

This is, first of all, a stunning display of one performer’s virtuosity and versatility. Flipping with lightning agility between accents, languages and physical mannerisms, Dhaenens is a shapeshifter, morphing seamlessly from orator to orator (or, if not always quite seamlessly, the seams themselves are as interesting as anything else). He is just as compelling when (literally) spitting with rage as when calmly – almost seductively – curling his mouth around some of the most dangerous political rhetoric in history.

And make no mistake, words are dangerous, even more so when tripping persuasively from the mouths of consummate public speakers. If Dhaenens’ wide line-up of public figures from across the years demonstrates that not much has changed when it comes to the art of verbal persuasion, another steady constant is the influence of the orator themselves. While styles of delivery vary wildly, it soon becomes clear that the success – or otherwise – of a speech lies largely in the hands (or mouth) of the speaker. The selection of speeches seen here might range from the inspiring to the morally repugnant, but it’s terrifying how much more blurred those lines can seem when rhetorical tricks come into play.

One particularly striking segment of the show interweaves two speeches by Joseph Goebbels and General Patton at the height of war in 1945, jumping deftly between the two sides. Goebbels is all creepy composure, while a shouty Patton drips with all-American testosterone, but the message of their speeches is essentially the same; both are calling for all-out war, asking their listeners to do whatever it takes to win. Sometimes it’s not the words you use, but the manner in which you clothe them.

Which brings me back to those ideas of framing, selection and juxtaposition. Why has Dhaenens chosen these particular parts of these particular speeches? Why has he placed this speech next to that speech? Why insert those specific songs? As demonstrated by the example above, quotation is not a neutral act, particularly when that act of quotation also involves sitting different snatches of borrowed speech alongside one another. On another occasion, by stringing together a series of short speeches from iconic US figures to the backing of ‘America’ from West Side Story, Dhaenens is instantly commenting on the American Dream and the supposed promise of the West without using a single word of his own. Aptly, this is also in a sense what politicians do, curating the facts and the rhetoric that make the point they are seeking to hammer home.

And there’s something that this process says not only about politics, but also about theatre and performance. I often think about how influential the framing of a piece of theatre is in guiding audiences’ reception of its political message (as a thought exercise, imaging putting a piece of fascist propaganda in a subsidised London theatre; it would almost certainly be read as a damning ironic comment on the material rather than an endorsement of the political view it portrays). The sheer force of Dhaenens’ performance, meanwhile, is a powerful demonstration of how words can be propelled by their delivery and how performance itself has the ability of transforming the fabric of the material it works with. Perhaps it really isn’t what you say, but how you say it.