July 07, 2011

Speaking in Tongues


Speaking in Tongues
by Andrew Bovell
State Theatre Company of South Australia
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre.
July 6. Tickets $ 29 – $59. Bookings : BASS 131 246
Until July 24.

There is something spellbinding about Speaking in Tongues, Andrew Bovell’s intricately threaded mystery about love, marriage and the secret chambers of the heart. His title suggests the Pentecostal glossolalia of spiritual and emotional revelation but, when his characters reluctantly channel their deepest thoughts and feelings, they are likely to speak with forked tongues instead.

This splendidly crafted play (first produced in 1996 and the basis for Bovell’s screenplay for Lantana) is enjoying its second revival in six months. Deliberately resisting naturalistic narrative, it uses parallel plotting, repetitions, prefiguring revelation and coincidence as a kind of instant karma. Although married, Leon, Sonja, Pete and Jane each tentatively go looking for new relationships and experiences – and guiltily find themselves at barely one degree of separation. In Bovell’s daisy chain of connections, everyone is linked and about to be found out – two strangers in a bar find they share the same secret, the therapist’s husband is in a liaison with her client, the police investigator and his suspect echo each other’s infidelities.

Sometimes the characters’ predicaments are so similar that, as in Part One, they share the same overlapping dialogue, speaking their awkward private feelings in generic chorus – as though these shared thoughts and apprehensions are almost satirically commonplace. Bovell uses these contrivances to powerful effect, giving voice to the unspoken incongruence and restlessness in all long-term relationships and brilliantly highlighting the internal anxiety and self-reproach they cause.

In the State Theatre Company’s production, briskly and compellingly directed by Geordie Brookman, the discomforting symmetries of the unfolding storyline are well presented in Victoria Lamb’s abstracted domestic décor in Part One, transforming into the forebodingly steep night road for the final section. DJ Tr!p’s pulsing, sometimes ominous music and soundscape and Geoff Cobham’s probing, evocative lighting bring the production elements into satisfyingly close alignment.

The performances are strong as the ensemble of four actors present Bovell’s nine interlinked characters. Leeanna Walsman is excellent as the insecure Jane, drawn to new experiences but tormented at the consequences, Lizzy Falkland is memorable as Valerie the therapist who becomes literally entangled in fears and excruciations which date back to her early life, Chris Pitman features vividly as Nick, the guilty-seeming suspect and provides valuable continuity as the detective Leon, and Terence Crawford, initially awkward as Peter, in Part Three finds assurance as the ambivalent and priggish John Knox.

Geordie Brookman and State Theatre have hit the mark. This is an absorbing, affecting production of a first-rate play. Fifteen years on, Speaking in Tongues has more to say to us than ever.

Murray Bramwell

Published in slightly abridged form in
The Australian, July 8, 2010. p.14.

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