Speaking in Tongues is the second play by Australian playwright Andrew Bovell to open in recent months in London, following the Almeida’s production of When The Rain Stops Falling. That play was well-received, rapturously so by yours truly, and this play was made into a film in 2001 called Lantana which happens to be one of my all-time favourite films, so safe to say I was somewhat looking forward to this production opening in the West End at the Duke of York’s theatre.
Ostensibly, this play is centred around the disappearance of a woman and the subsequent police investigation, but in reality it is much more about the fragility of human relationships and the ways in which we betray each other. Nine characters feature in Speaking in Tongues in a tangle of adulterous liaisons, betrayals, unexpected connections, confessions and interviews. These are all presented in a variety of formats which may take the viewer by surprise especially with a big shift as the second half starts, but stick with it as it does all become clear.
The first act opens with two couples committing adultery with each others’ partners but is delivered with a breathless display of technical acting unlike anything I’ve seen before. The two scenes are played simultaneously but separately on the same stage and much of the dialogue is actually shared by the characters, but delivered at the same time by two or more of the actors in perfect synchronicity, it really does have to be seen to be believed as it does go on for some considerable length as well. I was very impressed by it, my companion less so, but I’m usually right about these things 😉
After having broken my heart most effectively in the most recent series of Torchwood, I was most excited to see Lucy Cohu on the stage and I am pleased to say that she did not disappoint. She looked stunning dancing her way through the first act in her blue dress, and brought some real heartbreaking intensity to her scenes in the second half after the switcheroo. Kerry Fox was also good, with a great soliloquy at the end of the first act, but her accent (she is a Kiwi by birth) was somewhat inconsistent which perplexed me a bit. Of the male performances, John Simm impressed me the most in the first half exuding a great blokiness which left me in no doubt about all the women wanted to sleep with him and the men wanted to be friends with him. Ian Hart came into his own in the devastating final scene, but was slightly hampered by having the less interesting of the characters in both halves.
The staging of this play is largely very well done given the limited space that they have to work with. Different layers of the set are periodically peeled back giving an almost split-screen effect which gives great energy to the production. The lighting is very atmospheric and the use of video projections in the second act was particularly effective in helping to evoke the strong emotions of the piece. This did however conversely also highlight the weakness of the very cheap looking fake views out of the windows that popped up in the first half, they really were naff and could easily have just been replaced with a bright light to a much better effect.
Despite my previous knowledge of the source material, I do believe that this is a strongly plotted play that despite the shift midway through, hangs together coherently. As with When The Rain…, it rewards paying close attention and being made to work perhaps a little harder than elsewhere in the West End, but those rewards are rich, especially with the performance of Cohu.