I had no idea what to expect when I walked into Theatre 54, a small space on the 12th floor of a midtown building on 54th street to see Australian playwright Andrew Bovell's play Speaking in Tongues. There was a small playing area with mirrored walls and an overabundance of lighting fixtures in between two banks of audience seats (this is called a "traverse" stage, as opposed to the "proscenium," or picture-frame staging that Broadway theatres are designed to utilize). But as soon as the action started, I was thoroughly impressed by the excellent writing, the committed acting, and the structure of both the script and the staging.
This four person play, well-directed by Bryn Boice, takes themes like infidelity, break-ups, and murder, and weaves them together into a piece of theatre that is a truly unique object. As I just mentioned, there are several aspects of this production that work together to create a mesmerizing experience.
First of all, I was struck by Bovell's writing. My friend, also a theatre scholar, commented on the fact that "naturalism" is sometimes used in a negative way in the theatre to imply that something is old, or boring. Postmodern theatre, in other words, tends not to like it. However, Speaking in Tongues is proof that, when done properly, naturalism can be electrifying and modern. There are moments in this production when the crisp dialogue brings out pity or humor because of the idiosyncratic ways the characters associate things.
Whereas the naturalistic dialogue makes the quotidian exciting, there are also moments of consciously poetic storytelling that push the boundaries of naturalism for me. I was shocked at the vivid imagery certain monologues conjured for me. The odd, haunting, and human ways that these tales were told relied heavily on a storytelling tradition, where real life can be elevated to a metaphoric level. But it is all firmly grounded in the personable nature of these characters, and the easy way the audience, or at least I, felt connected to them.
This endearing humanity seeps out of Bovell's script, and is picked up by a set of actors who couldn't be better cast, in my opinion. Kathleen Foster (Jane/Valerie), Matthew Foster (Pete/Neil/John), Laura Iris Hill (Sonja/Sarah), and Michael Poignand (Leon/Nick) are all so believable that sometimes it's hard to believe that they're acting at all. Luckily, Bovell's script gives them the opportunity to wear more than one hat in the production, which lets us see that they all have talent and range. There isn't a weak link among them, but rather a solid group of actors that get the most out of each other and the script.
And there's plenty to get. I'm a sucker for a creative structure, and Speaking in Tongues certainly deserves that label. Initially, the symmetry of both setting and dialogue, as two couples say the same lines to each other, is an impressive feat. Yet as the scene progresses, and Bovell riffs on this theme, changing individual words or timing sometimes, and then returning to the perfect symmetry, things get really interesting. Meanings shift, relationships change, and different topics are addressed with practically the same dialogue. I will say that there is more of this symmetry in the first act than the second, but both acts work like separate units of a complete picture. The play ends in an unsatisfying place for me, but I think that relates more to my own desire to spend more time with the characters than anything else.
Bovell masterfully introduces various viewpoints on every topic and person of importance in Speaking in Tongues, and at no moment will he let things be simple. I am always appreciative of a playwright who isn't afraid to make the audience think, and the expert way Bovell and the Australian Made Entertainment cast and crew challenge assumptions is particularly noteworthy. The show only plays through December 16th, and if you want to see a great piece of theatre, you should head over and see it.
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A word to the wise: if you’ve never read a script before, or if you’re just looking for some light reading, think twice before picking up Andrew Bovell’s 1996 instant classic Speaking in Tongues. You may have caught a production of the play at the Griffin or elsewhere, or you may have seen the film adaptation Lantana. But until the text is in front of you, it’s difficult to grasp just how much is added to this work in performance and production.
The play begins with two pairs of characters meeting in separate bars. The male-female pairs are strangers to one another, but are each unknowingly meeting the partner of the person their own partner is talking to. See? Confusing as hell on paper. And that’s just the first scene.
To add to that confusion, take into account that the play is written in three “parts”. At the end of the first part, the entire cast of characters is done away with – not killed or anything, just no longer seen – and new narratives established. In the third part, characters from both parts converge on stage, with the addition of a ninth character. And nothing is in chronological order.
Confusing though it is, if you’re fluent in script or willing to put in the hard yards keeping track of who’s who, this is a gripping story. The conversations and encounters that cut across one another hint at everything from fatalism to the uniformity of human experience, and then from these tangled exchanges arise focused, touching, and unique moments for each of the characters, so that whilst the pace can be challenging on paper, we’re ultimately aware of who each of these characters are.
Another fantastic feature of this script is its scope, and the way that that’s structured. As mentioned before, this play comes in three parts, but Bovell also describes it in his playwright’s note as being in two halves. The first half would be the exchanges between the two couples, in houses and bars. Then, without warning we move to a deserted dirt road, a therapist’s office, a police station. Everything opens out rapidly, whilst maintaining the themes of human connection and shifting moralities. And essential though it is to see this play performed to truly understand it, it’s written in a way that really engages the reader as much as is possible. Bovell’s voice comes through in a very distinct way in the stage directions, as he confidently reveals, like a magician, his new characters and scenarios at the top of each part of the play. His enthusiasm for the endeavour of the work is infectious.
If you ever get a chance to see this play performed, see it. And I’m not just talking about going and hiring Lantana either – it’s a wonderful film, but a completely different creature from the stageplay. It’s a challenging read off the page, but such a rewarding one. A decade and a half later, Bovell’s writing still holds its thrill, intrigue, and sense of innovation.
Review by Georgia Symons, our resident blogger for the Playwriting Festival
Taking our cue from the National Year of Reading 2012, we’re having our very own National Year of Writing 2012, aka 366 Days of Writing.
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