16 Mar 2016

Review: Big Mouth

From the collecton Arts Festivals 2016
Big Mouth

Big Mouth Photo: Maya Wilsens

Austere but rewarding, this is theatre at its most stripped-back.

On a black set, a slightly-built man dressed in black speaks and occasionally sings into a series of microphones splayed across some industrial-looking benches.

Everything we hear is generated by his remarkable voice – with texture added by way of a looping recording which enables him to layer sound on sound, and acoustic manipulation provided by the sound system through which it’s all projected.

Sometimes the sound is closeup, sometimes distant; sometimes intimate, sometimes epic. Always, despite the mobility of his face, it’s the voice of the performer you pay attention to.

And what a voice! This bravura performance from the Belgian Valentijn Dhaenens could hardly be bettered. His sense of characterisation is unerring, and his command of vocal colour and accent is nearly faultless.

Style and content fuse to perfection, because the subject of Big Mouth is oratory. Created by its performer, the script takes the audience on a dance through history as we hear famous men from Socrates to President “Dubya” Bush.

The result is a dazzling experience for the audience because of Dhaenens’s vocal skill and the expert sound design supporting it, but also because of the echoes, rhythms and contrasts in the material. There’s a lot about war and death. The theme of sacrifice, too, is a recurrent one.

Music is used as a structural device, often providing sly commentary along the way – especially in the focus on American oratory, where West Side Story’s “I like to live in America” acts as a counterpoint to the words of Malcom X.

So far, so good. A fine performance of thought-provoking material. But that’s really the least of this show’s achievement. Where it’s really radical is in its treatment of its raw material. Again and again, the expected style of delivery is subverted to force us to consider how much we derive meaning from the way something is said.

Anything, it seems, can be sold, if it’s delivered in a way its intended audience is wanting to hear. Among many entrancing scenes (who could have imagined the words of Osama Bin Laden and Ann Coulter could sound equally reasonable and convincing?), there’s one absolute standout.

In a remarkable sequence the script interweaves a speech by Goebbels with a contemporaneous one by General Patton. However, the ranting is not in German, but American. Goebbels is close-miked, conversational, reasonable, appealing gently to an individual radio listener. Patton yells into a mike for a huge audience of GIs, all bellicosity and profanity. One voice is honeyed, the other strained. They are both persuading their listeners to sacrifice all for the war, but the Nazi message is infinitely more attractive in this performance.

Cushioned by that mellifluous voice, the play seems to suggest, it would have been so easy to acquiesce. How different, actually, is the audience for this play from those persuaded by Nazi oratory 70 years ago? It’s a profoundly unsettling question.

The contemporary resonance for Big Mouth could hardly be clearer, given the bluster and bullying speech of the current Republican primary in the USA. Think, and don’t just feel. Don’t be beguiled by the style. Resist what seems obvious.

Most important of all, don’t trust your ears.

Get the new RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes