One-man stage play dissects words of war

Summary

Flemish actor Valentijn Dhaenens writes and directs second monologue, this time telling the story of those caught up in conflict

It’s “the necessary sequel”, says Valentijn Dhaenens

Many of us know him best as Gunther Strobbe, the grown-up version of the child of a deplorable alcoholic family in the 2009 film De helaasheid der dingen (The Misfortunates). But actor Valentijn Dhaenens spends much more of his time on stage than on a set.

The 37-year-old’s stage career started in 2000 when he graduated from the Antwerp Conservatory. With four fellow graduates, he founded the collective SkaGeN.

Since The Misfortunates, Dhaenens has toured Europe with the self-written, self-directed monologue DegrotemonD (Bigmouth). For the past four years, his performance has wowed audiences in Flanders, Helsinki, London, Edinburgh and elsewhere. The monologue, a clever tribute to more than two millennia of oration, from Socrates to Caesar to Osama bin Laden, demonstrates that the dynamics of rhetoric will never change.

A “brilliant” piece according to Britain’s The Guardian, Bigmouth was selected for both the Dutch and Flemish versions of Het Theatrefestival after its premiere in 2009. Last year, it featured at Ostend’s Theater aan zee, and New York and Sydney are on next year’s list.

Between shows, Dhaenens wrote and directed his second monologue. DeKleineOorlog (Smallwar) premiered last month in Leuven and has a radically different outlook than its predecessor. Once again all alone on stage, Dhaenens now tells the tragic fate of those who fell victim to the powerful speeches of so-called great leaders quoted in the first monologue. 

The other side

“This is the necessary sequel,” says Dhaenens. “More than 80% of the speeches in Bigmouth are directly or indirectly linked to events that led to war. Nevertheless, they’re speeches with wonderful words, where heroism is emphasised. Leaders try to convince the masses to revolt or to go to war, then they praise the ones who have died and pretend to be grieving with their families.”

I read books on war and nothing else, for one year

- Valentijn Dhaenens

He felt obliged, he says, “to show the other side. There are millions of people who suffered the consequences of what was being said in those speeches. Those stories needed to be told.”

Smallwar is not to be mistaken for a staging of Louis Paul Boon’s 1947 book My Little War, though its concept is quite similar. Much like Boon’s legendary chronicles about the Second World War, Smallwar zooms in on the daily life of ordinary people during wartime. Dhaenens’ story is set in a field hospital during the First World War, where doctors, nurses, wounded soldiers and mothers speak out about what they see happening.

“I read one speech a day for a year as preparation for Bigmouth,” he says, “just to fathom the mysteries of the power of words. For this one, I did the same. I read books on war and nothing else, for one year.” The final text, he says, hovers between fiction and non-fiction. “It’s a composition of existing fragments and things I’ve written myself, based on diaries and personal letters – documents that give more personal impressions of what was happening.”

The choice of the First World War as a backdrop was a logical decision as it coincides nicely with the 1914 commemorations. It’s hardly surprising that the English version of the piece will be shown mid-2014 at London’s Imperial War Museum.

But, according to Dhaenens, there is a lot more to it. “The First World War was the mother of all modern wars,” he explains. “It was the first time that killing had been industrialised. Modern warfare took shape back then and has barely changed since. But after months of reading, I also started to think of this war as a symbolical war. It was, without question, the most useless and meaningless of all wars; its cause was preposterous. The world just really felt like fighting, so it did, with spectacular marches and proud armies.”

But the reality, he continues, “proved to be quite different. Young soldiers found themselves trapped in trenches for months, trying to conquer the next trench, just 20 metres away. When they had succeeded, maybe a week later, they had to retreat again to find themselves blocked at the same place, but now with almost all of their men dead. They must have known they would probably never get out of there alive.”   

At the end of his research, Dhaenens came to the following conclusion: “Meaninglessness and uselessness death and destruction on an enormous scale; these are the characteristics of war.”

History goes in circles

While deciphering the mentality of war, Dhaenens  stumbled upon elements he hadn’t expected to find. “We tend to think that ‘progress’ truly exists,” he says. “We are convinced that, as humans, we are becoming more civilised. Notwithstanding all that is going wrong, the world is a better place now than it used to be. But this is only true in some ways: We get older, and technology advances. There it stops. For everything else, history goes in circles. As humans, we are not getting any better. That is what war shows us.”

As humans, we are not getting any better. That is what war shows us

- Valentijn Dhaenens

Zooming in on the question of why war keeps on happening, Dhaenens’ piece turns the coin one more time. “The common man is not just the victim of great leaders,” he explains. “In this piece, I needed to address the question of where the culture of war really originates from. Why is there still no definitive solution? It was a mystery to me at first, but then I found an answer. Man wants to go to war; it is a human craving. Man needs war; it is a part of us. We cannot escape war, ever.”

The English version of Smallwar premieres at the Drum Theatre Plymouth in July and will be shown at the Edinburgh International Festival in August. The Dutch version in in February at deSingel is nearly sold out, but the show will tour Flanders next year

6-7 February
deSingel, Antwerp

Photo: Inge Lauwers

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