Speaking in Tongues

(Brisbane Arts Theatre)


By Andrew Bovell

Amateur production

Have you ever been tempted to cheat on your partner? Perhaps you’ve wondered if low self-esteem might be reassured by a one-night-stand? Has infidelity shattered your ability to trust relationships?

Speaking in Tongues tackles such questions and themes of guilt and innocence, of injured parties facing adulterous ones. It asks whether there is any real difference between cheating and nearly cheating? How can one predict or judge if a partner is unfaithful? Seemingly telltale signals can prove wrong, as we see in this play; what of the man (Nick) who sneaks home late at night with blood and scratches on his arms? In his car is one single shoe, which belongs to a missing woman. Should he be convicted of her murder? Yet what of another husband (John) who also comes home late but with clean hands from the arms of his mistress; he has committed sins of omission by not picking up the phone to his wife’s distress call from a phone-box near a lonely dark road.

We’re caught up in a tangle of the sexual relations from the outset; the opening scene shows two couples dancing, silhouetted against sunset-like lurid colours, which immediately gives a sense of foreboding. The staccato simultaneous dialogue between each couple reveals that both women, Sonja and Jane, are unused to one-night stands “It’s so long since I’ve been with another man” but both admit to fears of ageing and “I have to know if I’m still attractive.” The dialogue is crisply telling, baring the insecurities, frustrations and boredom of their marital relationships: “Tell me about your wife, is she happy? I want to know something about the woman I’m hurting.” Sometimes the same line means two things, even though the words are identical, revealing the varied situations the characters face.

As relationships tangle and intertwine like lantana, we understand why the film that derived from this play was so named. Whether temptation results in intercourse or not, marriages are shattered as their partners smell and sense betrayal. The first half sees characters yearning for love while struggling to rescue or escape from their disintegrating relationships. In the bar scenes, first the men and then the women share confidences and marital philosophies through an alcoholic haze; the wives admit their fears of wrinkles, of being abandoned or bored in their maternal/spousal roles.

The second act, which explores the results of fractured relationships, is more dramatic and arresting. Characters share imagery of cliffs, of falling, of being trapped by incoming water. We hear Valerie’s panic-stricken voice-mail messages from a deserted phone-box; Nick feels helpless as he tries to help a stranded woman on an unlit road and faces a likely murder conviction for his reluctant efforts. In a concluding twist John discovers the truth of the adage: “What you give out comes back to you.”

The four actors play nine roles, showing a wide range of characters. The female actors express their changing roles especially well through vocal pitch and nuance, swapping status from strong/weak in the first half to weak/strong in the second. The characters are well defined, given that they rely on just a few changes of hair and clothing to create quite different personas. Ali Kerr’s contrast is stark as she transits from red-clothed power woman (“I’ve got two degrees, a great job and two kids… and lines around my eyes… Two teenage boys, who eat, sleep and create lots of laundry. I needed distance …”) into the immature Sarah of the second half, all fluffy hair, girlie voice and escapism.

The other female roles are played by Catarina Hebbard, first as the middle-aged Jane (“I’m scared of change – and the lines around my stomach”) then as Valerie, a rather rigid psychotherapist who – according to John – tends to project her own experience of abuse onto her clients.

Julian Fanning’s three roles are less distinctly drawn, perhaps because his characters all show weak and self-indulgent traits, expressed through self-conscious hand movements. This contrasts with Leon (Norman Doyle) whose economy of movement reveals his more powerful status as a detective. His second role is also strong, if challenged; Nick has lost his job, he’s drinking heavily, he admits to not getting on with his wife: “I take it out on her a bit because I want her to worry about me.” So while relieved that his wife is asleep when he returns home late, he’s annoyed because he’d hoped she cared enough to worry.

The direction is deft, giving seamless interplay between the characters, well timed and effective. The set and props are minimalist in this naturalistic setting; a few boxes and chairs, a whisky decanter and beer glasses. Thus the actors’ clear articulation and expressive range are all the more creditable. The use of space is simple, highlighting similarities between the couples.

Andrew Bovell’s script is tight and punchy, with razor-sharp wit and perception of human feelings and situations. He propels the action along a lateral plane rather than linear one, using multi-narrative forms. “For me,” Bovell says, “Speaking in Tongues reveals something about the moral weakness to which we are all susceptible simply by virtue of being human.” The plot reveals tragic consequences of such weaknesses. Random connections between people in an “emotional labyrinth” show how we try to make sense of our lives through encounters with others.

This performance flows well and is well acted. Above all, it’s engrossing. It resonates with our lives, progressing through a wide spectrum of issues that confront modern relationships; fear of ageing; betrayal; will a vasectomy reversal save the relationship? Does a “successful” life bring contentment and happiness?

As Bovell says: “I really just set out to tell a compelling and haunting story about human fallibility.” This cast realises his goal. Certainly they deserve to play to full houses. Don’t miss it.

Directed by: Shellie Bahlow

Playing until April 1, 2006: Thu-Sat 8pm, Sunday matinees 12 & 26 March 2pm

Running time: 140 minutes including 15 minute interval

— Ruth Bonetti
(Performance seen: Thu 9th March 2006)