Skagen - Small War - Photo Jeremy Abrahams

SKaGeN: SmallWaR

Skagen - Small War - Photo Jeremy AbrahamsFor those who did not see the Belgian theatre maker Valentijn Dhaenens’s 2012 take on verbatim theatre, BigmoutH, it seems important to mention a few things about it here first. As an actual in-depth study of oration, BigmoutH consisted of a selection of texts from the mostly western history of public speaking, from Socrates and the Grand Inquisitor to Muhammad Ali and Osama bin Laden. Dhaenens’s treatment of this sort of material was not to simply reproduce it on stage using the skills of mimicry ordinarily deployed in verbatim theatre; instead his approach could be described as that of a vocal artist creating a sound installation. Using a selection of filters, BigmoutH eventually became a piece of a capella singing with Dhaenens harmonising multiple recordings of his own voice. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

Similarly SmallWaR is a piece of testimonial archeology focusing on documented experience of war, specifically the First World War, but quoting a range of historical figures from Attila the Hun to participants of the wars in the Crimea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan (though surprisingly omitting the Balkans). By comparison to BigmoutH, however, SmallWaR features several additional layers attempting to put the found texts into a dialogue with each other, and most significantly, adding a strong visual and even dramatic dimension to his presentational format. So, in collaboration with his designer Jeroen Wuits, Dhaenens sets the mise en scene up to allow for an interaction between himself on stage playing a World War One nurse and multiple video projections of himself playing an incapacitated soldier who, having lost his limbs and his voice, exists largely within the liminal space of his own hallucinations. Physically, therefore, there are three planes of depiction on stage: the actor in front, a bed which contains a plasma screen with a mostly still projection of a dying soldier in the middle, and a cloth screen in the back giving an imagined voice and body to the soldier. This allows the creators to engineer some uniquely powerful scenes, for example the spirit of the soldier on the big screen whispering into the ear of the nurse a letter for his unborn son. Or a conversation about the purpose of war and the meaning of democracy with his own father.

Threaded through the show are a number of songs ranging from Riders on the Storm (yes, it does work in the context!) to Silent Night, which Dhaenens renders with charisma and charm. He is a strong performer, a theatre maker with a clear dramaturgical sensibility, and although his overall composition could be a bit tighter, the main strength of his work is contained in its integrity and originality.