Tuesday, 21 July 1998

Speaking in Tongues, Playbox, July 21, 1998

Speaking in Tongues by Andrew Bovell
Playbox at Beckett Theatre until August 15, 1998
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Reviewed around July 20.

People's lives bleed into one another's, not necessarily by design, often by accident. They may actually meet, intersect, even run parallel or simply reverberate, resemble or echo each other. Six degrees of separation: we are all only six acquaintances away from each other.

In Andrew Bovell's play, Speaking in Tongues, nine characters played by four actors, share lives and even unwittingly share partners. They plunge headlong or dip blithely into each other's world's only to damage or abandon, perhaps to advise, reconcile or empathise. Whatever their relationships, they speak different emotional languages, hence the title.

Bovell's writing is always crisp, stylish and witty. His signature is the fracturing of time, space and dialogue. He splices several scenes and locations, creating intersecting voices, echoes in one scene of another, twanging ironic chords and reminding us that there are so few stories in this little human world. We all suffer the same pains and joys.

In creating this text, he has cleverly merged two earlier plays: Distant Lights from Dark Places and Like Whiskey on the Breath of a Drunk You Love. Additional narrative, for those familiar with these or the monologues from Confidentially Yours provides a further compelling back-story for familiar characters. It is not simple storytelling. There are diversions and detours at every turn.

Four consummate actors (Heather Bolton, Robert Meldrum, Merfyn Owen, Margaret Mills) double roles and are directed skilfully and unobtrusively by Ros Horin who directed the 1996 production at the Griffin Theatre, Sydney. Sleek design, (Liane Wilcher) adaptation (Nicola McIntosh), evocative lighting (Nigel Levings) and subtle music (Sarah de Jong) complete the piece.

Mills' Jane, a frightened fawn seeking change, is counter-pointed by Bolton's tough Sonia. Owen's forceful copper, Leon, balances not only his timid wife but his casual lover's sensitive, betrayed husband. Power and weakness, betrayal and loyalty, deception and reconciliation pull these characters together like magnets.

Bovell's dialogue plays with the fragmentation of everyday communication and the actors balance superbly the vocal dynamic, interplay of voices and roles, the canon effect of the dialogue and the cryptic emotional landscape.

Strangers' life stories can be catalysts for change or clarity. These characters are deeply affected by chance crossed paths. Leon cannot forget the man whose lover never returned from Europe. Neil obsesses about a stranger whose wife was stranded on a country road and disappeared.

There are some hiccups in this piece that may be due to the collision of styles but it is a resonant and challenging peep into nine lives.


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