As a teenager at school I was set an English assignment to write a speech upon a topic that I was passionate about. At the time my teenage self was angry at the amount of money that had been pumped into the Millennium Dome only for it to be sitting empty and at the point of closure. I delivered a passionate speech on how this mega structure should not close, banging my fists upon the table before me and proclaiming in no uncertain terms that it must remain open. Passionate I was, and clearly a tell-tale sign that I was heading to the theatre with such a powerful delivery of a speech riddled with the rule of three.
I’ve always enjoyed delivering speeches. There’s a level of performance involved that the inner drama school student of bygone years cherishes, but more importantly it is the power and emotion that can be conveyed upon a subject when speaking. It can make the listener laugh, cry or anger them. It can make an army ready for war, and comfort a mother mourning her lost child. Political and insightful, the act of speech delivery is fascinating especially when listening to Valentijn Dhaenens in his one-man performance of Big Mouth by Skagen Theatre.
Essentially Big Mouth, which was a hit during 2012’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival and now appearing at Soho Theatre, is 80 minutes of speech delivery, intersected with looping vocals and song. Dhaenens has a remarkable level of sensitivity and commitment to the speeches he covers. From French, English, German and I think Italian, political speeches from some of histories finest (and nastiest) figures find themselves oozing from Dhaenens lips. It is at times breathtaking how he manages to switch between accent, tone and conviction. A particular five minute sequence involving some five or so American figures that merge into one speech on the ‘American Dream’ is striking. Not just for Dhaenens’s performance, but also the amount of conflict and juxtaposition that speeches can have when placed side-by-side. Where Malcolm X denounces the freedom of Americans, Ragan proclaims the excellence whilst Clinton denies “sexual relations with that woman”. Bewildering and absorbing, Big Mouth shows the versatility and power of the delivery of speeches.
There’s another juxtaposition worth mentioning; Joseph Goebbels addressing the German nation on the radio and an American General (I forget which) addressing the American army at the start of World War 2. Where Goebbels is almost sexy in his calm voice listing the various restrictions upon German life, the American General is brash and brutal, spit being spat into the microphone with every “God bless America”. Such a contrast when bouncing between the two speeches is laughable, but here is where Skagen Theatre’s Big Mouth hits home. The laughter we experience is reflective more of the unsteady reaction we have with the speeches, how banal or superior speech writing can have upon a listening audience. More importantly, how some people have the courage to speak at all.
For me though, it is the ability of Dhaenens’s mouth that manages to curl the words around me like a python squeezing his prey. Political speeches in particular are captivating, and whether it is about the independence of the Congo or the abdication of the Belgium King, there is a force that I’ve not seen before from a solo performance piece. Compelling, engrossing, and I’m almost tempted to say devastating. Big Mouth really does hit you hard, and given my inability to form a sentence about the performance afterwards, clearly it had some kind of affect upon me. Power. So much power within the speech of man, and if anything, a poignant reminder that with a great speech and a great person delivering, you really can do anything; move mountains or armies, destroy civilisations or ideologies.