Review: Speaking In Tongues

by Jane

Andrew Bovell is probably Adelaide’s most well-known and respected playwright.  His most recent play, When The Rain Stops Falling opened at the 2008 Adelaide Festival of Arts, before touring Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, finishing in Alice Springs.  Other productions played in cities including New York and London, and perhaps most astoundingly, it will be getting a new Australian production with Black Swan State Theatre Company in 2011 – a second main-stage production of a new Australian work in just four years.

Speaking in Tongues is receiving somewhat of a revival this year in Australia with the 15th anniversary of its original production at Griffin Theatre Company in Sydney, and now playing at the State Theatre Company of South Australia.  With these productions helmed by the younger generation of directors with Sam Strong and Geordie Brookman, respectively, I think this truly marks the transition of the play into an Australian classic, taken into the arms of a new generation.

Bovell is known for his tricky use of language, his stylized and theatrical overlapping and intertwining of dialogue, repletion over scenes which sit lineally in a play, and scenes which overlap within it.  He deliberately withholds from his audience, secrets coming forth with the unwinding of the play and the densely packed dialogue.   But for this theatricality and coincidence, Bovell still manages to create characters that seem to naturally express themselves in their Australian idiom.

The play is best known for its adaptation in to the fantastic Lantana, directed by Ray Lawrence, which takes the disparate and overlapping themes and stories of the play and shifts them into a linear narrative.  When comparing the film to the stage, it’s a beautiful representation of how powerful the characters and stories are when left to do their thing in a more traditional setting.  When comparing the stage to the film, it is a beautiful demonstration of how Bovell’s manipulation of language can enhance the stories of suburban Australia.

Lantana Movie Poster

But from these stories of suburbia, perhaps bizarrely, for Speaking In Tongues you need to almost disengage slightly from the dialogue.  From the back row of the stalls of the Dunstan Playhouse where I watched Brookman’s production, while watching scenes where the characters speak over and with each other, when straining too hard to figure out exactly which half of which couple was speaking which line, the overall feelings and intent of the characters is lost.  It was through stepping back slightly from the lines themselves, you can appreciate the characters through the actors’ presentation, rather than the true lines.

Perhaps it was this slight stepping back, perhaps it is my age and so my lack of stories of heartache and relationships, but I came away from the production having enjoyed seeing and listening to a great play (Australian or otherwise), but never feeling like I truly connected with the characters.  A sense of remove between the play and myself never left.

With a cast of four playing some nine characters, here some actors are more successful than others at differentiating between roles.  Leeanna Walsman is the standout in Jane and Sarah, creating the both most contrasting characters between acts, but also the most compelling.  From the slightly fuddy “plain Jane”, trying desperately to please everyone, as words and thoughts start to slightly trip on their way out of her mouth to the strong Sarah, confused about her choices in life, but not afraid to stand up and speak out for herself, Walsman simultaneously exudes the vulnerability of her characters, and the strength of herself as a performer.

Lizzy Falkland and Leeanna Walsman. Photo by Shane Reid

"Do you think your wife would ever do something like this?" (Lizzy Falkland and Leeanna Walsman. Photo by Shane Reid.)

The other three actors have the disadvantage of less contrast between their characters in each of the parts in the script, but, by the same token, don’t bring out as strong a difference as perhaps could be found.

Chris Pitman’s Leon and Nick speak with the same speed, pattern, and vocal inflections, with Nick transferring the vocals further up the nasal cavity, creating an all-together rather whiney man.   Pitman also occasionally has the tendency to ham things up: when Leon finds out he is talking to the man whose wife he slept with, the pain in his chest has him almost staggering to the corner of the stage.

Lizzy Falkland and Terence Crawford both give solid performances, but fail to be compelling.  Falkland’s Sonja and Valerie are both cold and removed from the other people in their lives, looking down at everyone with a clinical detachment, and an air of judgment in the same manner.  Similarly, there is nothing discernable between Crawford’s Peter, Neil, and John; his performances in all roles are fine (although at times an avoidance of eye contact becomes irritable), but simply fail to stand up to the neatly drawn differences Walsman has found.

The cast work well together as a unit, and there is never confusion as to who is playing what character: costumes are changed, names are used liberally in Bovell’s script.  It simply feels there was more to explore in the multiple roles than most of the cast have currently found.

The strength of this production lies in its second act.  Just on a text level, it is more satisfying, as the stories start to have resolutions and the strands pulled together.  But in Brookman’s production, it is also the second act where the design elements – set by Victoria Lamb, lighting by Geoff Cobham, and sound by DJ TR!P – are exposed to their best advantage.  Brookman’s productions always have an interesting eye to them, and this is in no small part to the design teams he surrounds himself with.  Cobham and Lamb are two of the strongest designers working in Adelaide, and working together here they have crafted setting of extraordinary beauty.

Lamb’s set seems to sit somewhere between old slate tiling, edges smashed away and chipped, seemingly exposing the granite layering as it moves towards the audience, and morphing into an old wooden jetty, smoothing away with age and sea salt as the flooring literally stretches up the stage, curving away as it starts to fade in to the back of the proscenium.   There is one moment, almost separate from the rest of the show, where during a set change the set is backlit in purple exposing the silhouette and the true craft of the design.

Terence Crawford and Chris Pitman. Photo by Shane Reid.

"She's not going to phone." (Terence Crawford and Chris Pitman. Photo by Shane Reid.)

As is to be expected of just about everyone involved – Bovell, Brookman, and Cobham – lighting is suitably moody.  Cobham lights with great dexterity as he lights the set and characters right down to hand-held bike lights, illuminating just faces in the otherwise dark.   While stunning to look at, Lamb’s set is stagnant and simple in its transformation between scenes, and the production largely relies on Cobham’s dynamic lighting to illuminate shifts in location.  An occasional shaft of light, pointing away from the stage, above the actors, and into the audience, can be distracting, but overall Cobham’s lighting brings a new layer of mystery to Bovell’s work.

After a noticeably quiet first act, where DJ TR!P’s composition is mainly incidental and playing between scenes rather than over them, in the second act the power of sound design is exploited.  When given this space to play with the actors and the script, rather than around them, DJ TR!P’s sound dramatically enhances the strength of Brookman’s production.  And here, where electronic music melds with instrumentals, where a deep thud can resonate throughout the audience, and where the breathing of characters eclipses the theatre – here, DJ TR!P can demonstrate the true power of silence.

As a stage play, Speaking In Tongues draws its strength from intersections of lives.  As a production, here it truly shines when the theatrically of Bovell’s script allows for the theatricality in the exploitation and integration of set, sound, and lights.

In Bovell’s script, the layers of incidental stories of one act are peeled away into the stories of act two, as lives intersect in ways that are seemingly of no great meaning.  But these stories have meaning, because they are the stories of another person – in this we explore outward layering stories of our world, one person’s anecdote is another person’s life.

Lizzy Falkland and Leeanna Walsman. Photo by Shane Reid.

"I have to go now." (Lizzy Falkland and Leeanna Walsman. Photo by Shane Reid.)

But, for all this, here I never lost the sense of remove from the characters or production.  Speaking In Tongues is undoubtedly an important and interesting piece of writing; Brookman’s production has many strengths and I enjoyed the production, and especially the performance of Walsman.  I wonder if between the theatricality of the script and the theatricality of the production, connections with characters were lost.  I found myself distanced; perhaps somewhere between the dense script, the doubling of characters and the beautiful design there was room to pull myself back just a bit too much and so the total strength of any element wasn’t fully explored.

The State Theatre Company of South Australia presents Speaking In Tongues by Andrew Bovell.  Directed by Geordie Brookman, design by Victoria Lamb, lighting design by Geoff Cobham, composition and sound design by DJ TR!P, chororaphy by Andienne and Andrew Gill, Southern Cross Tango.  With Terence Crawford, Lizzy Falkland, Chris Pitman, and Leeanna Walsman.  At the Dunstan Playhouse until July 24.  More information and tickets.