LOVE, WORDS, POWER & LOUIS FARRAKHAN: an interview with Valentijn Dhaenens

Posted on March 25, 2013

SKaGeN with Richard Jordan Productions Ltd in co-production with De Tijd & STUK present BIGMOUTH. A solo performance by Valentijn Dhaenens, who pays tribute to 2,500 years of oration. Using fragments of well-known and lesser known speeches, he shows that the tricks of the trade have hardly changed.

We interviewed Valentijn about love, words, power and Louis Farrakhan.

BIGMOUTH was originally devised in Dutch. What particular challenges have you faced putting the show into English? 

I chose not change everything into English. While most of it is in English, I inserted some translations to German, French and Dutch. By doing so, I hoped I could turn this show about the power of words and speech into a ‘Tower of Babel’-like experience, increasing the possibilities of using the dramatic power of each language. Imagine Hitler’s furious speeches in French or English, or Barack Obama in German, and you’ll understand what I mean.

Of all the orators included in BIGMOUTH, who do you think is the greatest?

As a performer, Louis Farrakhan must be one of the most sensational orators still alive. He talks,shouts and sings in the tradition of other preachers such as Martin Luther King, but with a more aggressive and enemy-directed approach. Search for him on ‘You-Tube’ for hours of family-fun ;-). The total War-speech by Joseph Goebbels is morally condemnable, but stylistically so well written and composed with long literary sentences. It gives me the chills. Most theatrical goes to the Funeral Oration of Pericles with hundreds of dead soldiers at his feet, and their parents in front of him.

Has making BIGMOUTH changed the way you listen to speakers, either politicians, artists, etc?

Yes, it has. I can’t listen to a politician anymore without thinking how he and his spin doctors decided to put things in words, what order to use and what stylistic choices to add in order to communicate smoothly. In their introductions, I can mostly already read the tactics that will follow, and once in a while I can hear what historical speech is being copied or cited by a lesser god. But in general, the configuration of speech hasn’t much changed since the ancient Greeks invented rhetoric.

Tell us about the process of development for a piece like BIGMOUTH?

I never did a monologue before. I’m used to working in a collective (the company SKaGeN) without a director, sharing responsibilities and discussing the artistic choices that have to be made. With BIGMOUTH, for the first time, I could actually choose whatever I wanted intuitively. That was a real eye-opener to me. I always had a fascination for speeches and the importance they had in world history. I am still amazed that the power of just words can mobilise entire nations to one or another direction. The pure act of someone talking without interruption to a large group of people has always had this effect on me of the audacious human wanting to be God. The preparation of Bigmouth was very different from the way we normally work with SKaGeN, starting from a concept or a play. During a year I committed myself to reading at least one speech each day without wanting to much, or having a reason other than pure luck. Doing this I read more than a thousand speeches over the course of a year. Once read, I would put them into categories by intuition or connotation. In essence I was just waiting for the speeches to start communicating to one another. In short, this is how Bigmouth came together. One speech led to another.

What is your background as an artist?

I studied dramatic arts at the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp. I graduated in 2000 and we began a company with the class of 5 named SKaGeN. Since then, we have made over 20 theatre perfomances, that have intensively toured mostly through Belgium and Holland. Apart from my work with the company, I played with several other theatre companies (as now in Fight Night by Ontoerend Goed) and did some filming in French, English and Dutch ( most known abroad: The Misfortunates by Felix Van Groeningen, where I played the lead).

What motivates your work?

History, Mankind, Love, Words, Power.

 What are you most looking forward to this year?

The birth of a small girl in the beginning of June that carries half of my genes.

Have you ever visited Bristol before?

No, I only know it of being the home base of early trip hop-bands as Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky, which I was very fond of at the age of 16. I believe Banksy and Damian Hirst have some connection to Bristol too, but that’s about it. I’m looking forward to it …

How do you say BIGMOUTH in Dutch?

Grote Mond

BIGMOUTH, 24-16 May, Bristol Old Vic Studio.