Dynamic Belgian writer and actor, Valentijn Dhaenens, uses famous words from history to illuminate the present.
In the Brighton Dome, Valentijn Dhaenens stands onstage, ready for his monologue. He wears an expensive suit and in front him, there are five microphones. In the play Bigmouth, Dhaenens brings a series of speeches together that have defined history. Each time he stands in front of a different microphone, he plays a different character, performs a different speech in a way typical of the person he represents in history. Dhaenens changes from character to character like a chameleon in no time and without effort. From Joseph Goebbels to Ronald Reagan and from Martin Luther King to Socrates, even Osama Bin Laden, a variety of famous figures are included. Serious but playful, and with criticism. Not everything is in English because Dhaenens also speaks in French, German and Dutch, now and then.
Fascination with words
Dhaenens was born in Ghent, Belgium, in 1976. He’s movie actor and has also played in the famous Flemish movie, ‘The Misfortunates.’ He also likes to do theatre. Dhaenens explains where the idea of his monologue, ‘Bigmouth,’ comes from; “I always had a fascination for words. You have to realise that people define history by words, by saying things. This always fascinated me, my personal fascination for speeches is the breeding ground for this play. It was when I’d read Joseph Goebbels’ speech that I realised I could do something with this. Everyone knows this speech and how Goebbels told this speech, in a very aggressive way. Then when I had read this speech and I was surprised how well it was written. The content of the speech is horrible but the sentence structure is fascinating. He uses long sentences, which is very rare for a speech. Speeches normally have short sentences. In a literary and stylistic way it’s an amazing speech. I had the feeling that if I read this very calmly then people would actually hear what he wrote.”
1000 speeches a year
Dhaenens explains how he prepared himself for the performance; “It took a while to prepare myself for this performance. In about a year, I’ve read about 1000 speeches, and I analysed them. I also split them up in groups so that along the time I was hoping to find speeches that would have a connection with each other. So in my play, you can also hear that every speech is somehow linked to the former or the next speech. The speech of Goebbels for example is linked to the speech of General Patton. He was a general in the U.S. during the Second World War.” In his performance, Dhaenens also uses music. He explains why; “The music has a double meaning. The music is typical for the context. For example, I sing the song ‘We Meet Again,’ after the Second World War speeches. This is one of the most famous songs of that time so it relates to the context. Another example is ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana because it was one of the speeches of our generation. Another reason why I use music is because it glues the performance together and gives it a certain speed. It simply links the speeches with each other.”
From Belgium with love
‘Bigmouth’ is originally a Belgian performance but a lot of other countries are also interested in Dhaenens’ monologues, but not without effort on his part. A lot of artists perform and want their performance to be seen and shown. Valentijn explains; “We had make a lot of effort. We started in Leuven (Belgium) and Helsinki (Finland) in 2011. In August in 2012, we played in Edinburgh, and I played the performance nine times. At the Edinburgh Festival, we had to finance everything ourselves. It’s a strange but great concept; it’s like a market place full of performances. I played in a laboratory, where they used to do dissection. I had to set up my stuff quickly and pack up quickly because there were other people waiting to perform, the circumstances weren’t that great. But people noticed the performance. Performing in Edinburgh brought me to Brighton, and I’ll perform in London in July as well. Reactions to the performance in general were good. I noticed some different reactions from different countries because I always talk to the crowd afterwards. I noticed that in the Netherlands they liked the mix between words and music, they were fan of the performance in general. The people from the UK really liked the words and the literary aspect. English people just love rhetoric. You even notice this if you look at the parliament, they can orate there and they love it.” If visitors see his performance, Dhaenens wants them to remember one thing. “Things haven’t changed,” he explains. “Since we invented language we haven’t changed. We use language to get control over people and use our power. It makes us different to animals because we think about communication and they use their instinct. It’s not only negative, it´s what makes us human.”