REVIEW: Big Mouth (Auckland Arts Festival)

Review by Matt Baker

Big mouth, big ideas.

[The Best Words]

Peter O’Toole once said that it is an actor’s job “to make the words flesh”. Bringing words to life requires both a studious and innate understanding of not only what they mean, but also what they can represent. Performed and directed by Valentijn Dhaenens, Big Mouth addresses addresses through history, and, in doing so within a prescribed time and space, provides its audience with the ability to see past the men and woman who said them, and truly listen to the words spoken.

The atmosphere provided by scenic, lighting, and sound designer Jeroen Wuyts begins rather cold and detached, allowing the audience to focus purely on Dhaenens’ words. When necessary, Wuyts draws us into the warmer, more intimate moments, without losing the overall presentational tone. A dimly lit stage with a range of microphones and several glasses of water is all Dhaenens requires to bring to life the words he has chosen to repeat, a blackboard projection listing the various figures from which his text comes. Not only does this provide clarity, but a rough “timer” for the duration of the show.

What makes this duration so compelling is that though Dhaenens’s vocal characterisations are both very linguistically and vocally accurate, he does not attempt to impersonate the people from whom these words came. His vocal choices instead imbue the words with an intention that contains the ethos of his interpretation of the text. From the measured calm of Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, to the vehement patriotism of United States Army General George S. Patton, Dhaenens deliberately, yet without criticism, exposes how simply words of such similar content can be used for such similar intent, and result in such retrospectively contrasting outcomes and moral or ethical perceptions.

Such perceptions range from the aforementioned figures in the justification for war, the appeal for mercy (Nicola Sacco) or the acceptance of conviction and consequent death (Socrates), from the tears for thousands of dead children (Pericles) to the cursory abdication of a king for his refusal to take the life of even one (Baudouin). Dhaenens has read “thousands” of speeches and has whittled them down to a powerful few, and he does not shy away from their subject matter.

Several pieces of music, provided entirely by live harmonic a cappella, intersperse the speeches, preventing the rhythm of show from stagnating in prose. A loop of Stephen Sondheim lyrics shifts the pace, played under a mash of John F. and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali; a tone of anger begins to emerge. This is quickly quelled, however, with the serene logic of Osama Bin Laden in response to the words of Presidents H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. The rise of Islamophobia could not be more timely, and the politics of Frank Vanhecke and the poison of Ann Coulter reverberate as strongly today as they did when they were first spoken. It is an integral component to Dhaenens work; these words are being used again, and again, and again.

While some of the texts presented in Big Mouth are lesser known than others, this merely provides an impetus for the audience to seek out the stories behind these words and further their knowledge on the world’s oral history. If you have any interest in such an educational experience presented in a simple yet unique and skilful way, be sure to catch the internationally acclaimed Big Mouth while it’s here.

Big Mouth is presented by SKaGeN and Richard Jordan Productions in a co-production with De Tijd & STUK and plays at Q Loft until March 20. For details see Auckland Arts Festival.

SEE ALSO: review by Raewyn Whyte

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