I find that the more simplistic a stage design is, the more complex, cerebral, or emotional the story will be. This, of course, is not a fixed rule, but for the most part it tends to be true. The critically acclaimed show, Bigmouth, helps provide evidence for my observational theory.
On top of a long wooden table sit five microphones, spaced evenly apart, while a “chalkboard” containing the names of politicians, activists, kings and so on, hangs in the background. While we wait for the show to start, you can hear audience members reading out the names on the chalkboard, trying to figure out what the inclusion of that particular person could mean.
Bigmouth, was created, directed and is performed by Valentijn Dhaenens. The show consists of seminal speeches from individuals like Joseph Goebbels, George. W. Bush, Malcolm X, Osama Bin Laden and Ann Coulter.
When you first see these names written on the chalkboard, your first instinct is “How do these relate to one another?” I mean, Ann Coulter? Yikes. And yet, Dhaenens somehow manages to help you disconnect from your personal animosity towards a particular person and just listen to their words. For instance, near the beginning of the show, there is a speech by Joseph Goebbels and for most of us, we would want to tune that out. However, Dhaenens performs Goebbels’s speech as a back and forth with a forceful speech by George S. Patton. By doing this, it becomes clear that these two men were saying the exact same thing, just using different words. Culture and context played a huge part in how those two men gave those particular speeches and it is not until you hear them at the same time do you realise how the sentiments expressed are so closely related.
To break up the intensity of some of the speeches, Dhaenens uses recognizable songs to sort of cleanse the audience’s palate. Of course, being the master performer, he does this with no musical instruments, just his own voice and a looper pedal. For example, when giving the audience a crash course in certain speeches during the Civil Rights movement, Dhaenens first created a simple base line with his fists on the table and sang a few lines from “America” (West Side Story). This was a creative and effective way to shake us out of our own thought process and refocus us.
During a talk-back with Dhaenens he stated that people often focus on the political aspect of the show, but for him, he created the show to demonstrate the power of words and the meaning behind them. Because I was not familiar with some of the speeches, or even some of the individuals, I was relieved to hear that this was his intent. I say this because while I was really interested in seeing this performance, I was also a bit intimidated by it.
However, as we worked our way through the show, there were certain speeches that began to make an impact; not necessarily because of the person giving the speech, but because of the words and tone that was being used to say them.
It became more clear to me that while there were obvious political motivations behind these speeches there was something else that was more important. I mean, anyone can give a speech but not every speech is going to be memorable, or effective, if you don’t have an understanding of how to tap into human intellect or emotion. No speech will be remembered for its strength, importance or force, if the audience cannot relate to it. Dhaenens did a seamless job of choosing and incorporating speeches that became politically significant because the chosen words skillfully tapped into the human psyche.