SmallWar by SKaGeN at the Barbican

BigMouth / SmallWaR

Reviewer's Rating

There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far, very far…
…And while we spoke of many things, fools and kings
This he said to me “The greatest thing
You’ll ever learn is just to love
And be loved in return”


Nat King Cole’s Natural Boy is a common point in both performances. In BigMouth an anthem to the little man going to war unaware, in SmallWaR a sardonic, bizarre reminder of the tragedy of war.

BigMouth is a parade of famous speeches, all confidently performed by Valentijn Dhaenens with the aid of microphones and of a projected blackboard, to help us keep track. From Socrates and Pericles to Goebbels and Patton to Martin Luther King to both Bush presidents, and many more in between; each and every one of them promoting a just vision, each and every one of them calling the masses to battle.

Dhaenens does not imitate the speakers per se, he tries to give us a feeling of them, but he mostly lets their words speak, the moral certainty and the moral imperative they profess shines through. He does not judge, he orates. History has already spoken in many of the cases and in the most recent ones, each to his own politics…. Between speeches it is the songs that can either add an emotional twist or an ironic one.

The projected blackboard with the names of the speakers written in chalk that is gradually erased as the performance progresses makes an interesting contrast. As do the low-tech orations with the sound effects added to the songs in between.

SmallWaR zooms in on the individual, it is a story told through testimonies of war. The soldier, the nurse, the priest, the families; those who answered the call; those who witness the consequences; ultimately, every last one who has had to live with the consequences.

It is more engaging, more emotionally difficult and more technologically advanced than BigMouth. It is to be expected, after all, it was created as a companion piece at a later date. All of it is performed by Dhaenens either live or as projections. He is dressed as a nurse, a female one, the uniform similar to a US WWII one.  A projection screen dominates the space. The nurse enters pushing a small bed, small like a cot, on it a flat screen with an amputated soldier shown in profile. An arm missing….both legs….part of the face, we find out later… Thoughts and stories become projections; think of souls leaving a body, like in films, shaped as the people. They detach from the soldier’s immovable body and move on to the screen to enact their character. The nurse is occasionally the carer, occasionally the family member, occasionally the protagonist.

Why do people go to war? Why do they answer the call? How do they cope with the physical and emotional trauma? How do the people around them? To use his own words, Dhaenens created “…an emotional reflection on the trauma and repetitiveness of war, concentrating on the deadlock instead of the action.” His often deadpan performance is eerie and absorbing, tragic and grotesque. In the end it is the black body bag that dominates everything.

BigMouth and SmallWaR together, make for a macroscopic and microscopic critique of “the call to arms”.  Definitely worth to see, especially as a double bill.