Griffin Theatre Company weaves a tangled web - and puts on the first great show of the year
Coincidence, concurrence and connection play a big role in Speaking in Tongues. It begins with a little of all three.
Having just met this evening, two separate couples are edging slowly towards sex. Pete (Andy Rodoreda) is about to cheat on his wife Jane with Sonja. Leon (Chris Stollery) is about to cheat on his wife Sonja with Jane. Sonja (Lucy Bell) is about to cheat on her husband Leon with Pete. Jane (Caroline Craig) is about to cheat on her husband Pete with - are you getting this? - Leon.
In their respective hotel rooms, Pete and Sonja, Leon and Jane grapple with their imminent act of infidelity. None of them have done has anything like this before. From the audience's vantage point - and I hope you're still paying attention here - the four of them in fact appear to be in the same room, realising the same desires, suffering the same apprehensions, saying more or less the same things at roughly the same time. Except that Leon and Jane arrive at a very different destination to Pete and Sonja.
In less capable hands, this kind of synchronicity could feel like a shallow parlour trick, or, heaven help us, theatresports. Here it feels totally natural. And, anyway, no one's sitting there merely admiring the slickness of the operation. By this point, even before the lights go down in fact, we're already engrossed by Pete, Sonja, Leon and Jane - their similarities and differences.
This is only about 20 minutes in. The intricate needlework of the play only gets more elaborate from here on in. Every possible combination of these characters is explored and examined - Dayna Morrisey's elegant, uncluttered set highlights the shapes and symmetries of this section perfectly - and then this study in lovers and strangers takes a turn for the mysterious. What's the relevance of the story Leon tells Sonja, that ends with a pair of brown brogues? Or the incident Jane recounts to Pete that ends with a single stiletto?
In the second act, we meet a whole new set of characters. A whole network of secret connections, it seems, is just beginning to unravel.
Speaking in Tongues is a devilishly crafty piece of work, but under the expert guidance of director Sam Strong, it's thrilling rather than confounding. It rewards close attention like all the best crime fiction - and it can be strangely satisfying to draw a diagram afterwards - but it's not trying to throw you off the scent.
First performed in this very theatre, the play is well suited to it. Depending on where you're sitting, there's at least one blind spot in the diamond-shaped stage where you enter the theatre (for any baseball fans out there, it corresponds to the catcher's box position). But what's so perfect about seeing Speaking in Tongues at the Stables is that there tends to be another story unfolding elsewhere. Three quarters of the audience are watching something different to what you're watching at any given time.
It's a unique gift for a willing and able cast. Bell, Craig, Rodoreda and Stollery don't set a foot wrong. They play nine fully-formed characters between them, each with his or her own secrets, lies and emotional journeys, each perfectly in tune with the collective unconscious of the group as a whole. The simultaneous action of the first act is just a hint of what they achieve as an ensemble in the rest of the play - their joint recollection of a dream is stirring stuff. Beautiful music played by a skilful quartet of virtuosos.
Of course, they've got one hell of a conductor in Strong, directing the show like he owns the place (which he does, sort of, as Griffin's artistic director). But it's more than Strong knowing how to get the most out of this particular space - or equipping his characters with the appropriate choice of beer. He steers his cast through the intersections and roundabouts of relationships with intelligence and insight. It's a uniquely perceptive picture of human behaviour in regards to love, passion, marriage, trust, deception, despair and the undependability of automobiles. There's never a dull moment.
Mr. Strong also makes sure we're swept up in the swirling undercurrent of foreboding running right through this play (and the occasional eddy of humour). It's probably not quite what he and Bovell mean when they speak of being ‘haunted' by this story, as they both have, but the stage seems to be populated by spectres at times - there are some poignant, goose bump-inducing moments between characters who appear to be in touching distance of one another but are actually quite alone.
There's a good chance these ghosts will linger on in your imagination too. This is a gripping, emotionally and intellectually satisfying production of an exceptional piece of contemporary Australian theatre. Go get tangled up in its wonderful web. Darryn King
Speaking in Tongues is a contemporary Australian theatre classic and a unique experience in the theatre: a study of strained relationships wrapped in tangly theatrical riddles and shrouded in mystery. Fifteen years after its first production and 10 years after it was adapted into the film Lantana, Griffin has brought it back to the SBW Stables Theatre.
Currently at work in New York, Andrew Bovell was kind enough to talk to Time Out about the play over a series of emails.
Hi Andrew. Thank you for taking the time to talk with Time Out. What are you up to in New York?
I'm sorry for taking a while to get to these questions. It's been busy here setting up in New York... finding an apartment and finding a place to work but also maybe it's just hard to look back.
So... I'm in New York I think because it's something I never got around to doing in my twenties and then somehow my thirties passed too and I still hadn't done it and now I'm at the tail end of my forties and so I thought... well, it's time to try this. I also think you find yourself in a very comfortable place. People know who you are. People know your work. At least in our industry. And that's great. But New York is a big city. Full of playwrights. And nobody knows me here. And somehow in the anonymity of that it feels like I can take some risks. And I have an appetite... for theatre, for art, for ideas and I can find all of those things in Australia of course but I'm hungry for the unfamiliar... to meet unfamiliar people, to walk down unfamiliar streets, to comprehend unfamiliar ideas.
I also had a great time here when When the Rain Stops Falling was on at the Lincoln Centre. I met great people. I admired their work. And people responded to my work with curiosity and interest. And I guess I sensed then that maybe there is an audience here and that it is something worth aspiring to... this idea of having a show on in New York. Of course it's entirely different being here without a show on in town... it's tougher, less parties, less late night bars, but more real. I'm working. I'm writing. And I love that.
And I'm working on an American themed play... so it just makes sense to be here.
So tell us how the idea for Speaking in Tongues first came about.
Learning to dance the salsa with my wife Eugenia in the early 1990s. She was really good. I wasn't. It was hard but she really wanted me to dance with her... She said she'd leave me if I didn't. So I tried really hard. And then seeing a woman's shoe at the side of a highway driving home late one night and thinking how did that shoe get there and where is the woman who was wearing it. And then I started to see lost shoes everywhere. I was also reading a lot of American crime fiction around that time... hence the noir influence to the work and the meditation on the darker side of marriage.
And all this resulted in two short plays... both with long titles. The first was Like Whiskey on the Breath of a Drunk You Love in 1992 and the second in 1994 was Distant Lights from Dark Places. Both plays premiered in the independent scene in Melbourne and were quite different in theme, style and form. And then Ros Horin did a production of Whiskey at Griffin at some point and in Melbourne it had been very serious and in Sydney it was very funny... kind of a satire which delighted me and so the relationship with this body of work and Griffin began there.
Ros then wanted to do a season of both short plays and asked me to write a third piece to make a night of it and I came back with the proposal to somehow bring the two earlier plays together into a more substantial work.
And I remember the wonderful discoveries I made by finding the connections between seemingly unrelated material. And that as a style or an idea or a way to handle material has become a defining aspect to my work. If you look at [When the Rain Stops Falling], it begins as a series of seemingly unrelated narratives but the connections between them are gradually revealed to create a puzzle... a jigsaw... something for the audience to piece together. And the possibility of that was all found in the writing of Speaking in Tongues.
I've discovered how incredibly and wonderfully complex Speaking in Tongues is on the page. You wrote in your Author's Note in '98 that it doesn't follow the ‘normal rules of playwriting' - and that you were ‘worried that the audience will experience a degree of frustration with it.' What gave you the courage, or audacity, to stick to your guns - and the play?
Mmm... I'm not sure how to answer this one. Courage and audacity are qualities I'd like people to find in my work... they are qualities I respond to in good writing. What's audacious I guess about Speaking in Tongues is that it begins with one set of characters and then replaces them with another set. So it takes theme as the point of continuity rather than character. It takes a set of ideas about relationships between men and women and examines them in a series of increasingly complex levels... hopefully drawing an audience into deeper consideration and deeper feeling.
I remember feeling at the time of writing it that I was stretching some formal rules... that the composition of the work felt original even though the stories and themes... murder, infidelity, betrayal, intimacy were very familiar. And I felt excited by stretching those rules... by creating a new way to treat familiar material.
But I also thought... will people get this? And that's not a bad question for a playwright to be asking. Because if you write something that you know the audience will love... or that will be received well, then maybe you are just repeating yourself or emulating another playwright's work.
It's a challenging play for its performers and its director. What's been your experience of watching the play being performed? Have things ever been lost, or gained, in the process of taking it to the stage?
I remember that the first production was a revelation... that things that had been tried on the page worked on the stage and full credit to Ros and the original cast for taking the text on with all its demands. Every production since then has brought something more to it because it's such an ensemble piece... each cast is unique in that way.... but sure sometimes moments are missed or misunderstood. That's hard but that's theatre.
Did you have any involvement with that production, or offer Ros any additional guidance?
I was very involved in the first production... I was there during the first two weeks or rehearsal. And of course I had had extensive conversations with Ros Horin in the lead up to rehearsal. However... from memory we didn't make a lot of changes in rehearsal. We just got on with finding the form of it.
You mention that the play revolves around "ideas about relationships". How much did these ideas reflect your own concerns at the time, and the lives of those around you?
Yes... the play is about relationships. Every play I have written has been about relationships. Here though I think I was talking specifically about the bond of marriage.... or the particular nature of relationship between men and women... it was written around nine stories about love... nine people caught up in the business of love... trying to make sense of it.
These were my concerns then.... but not my only concerns... and I remain interested and compelled by that subject now.... but I would always aim to write beyond my own experience and to reflect on life beyond what is experienced directly by me. I hope that makes sense. The play certainly reflects my concerns but it is not autobiographical if that is the implication of your question.
Sure, that makes sense, Andrew – your plays strike me not as autobiographical but as great feats of imagination, especially in the way you paint your characters. How did you then go about transporting the characters of Speaking in Tongues into film? I would think there would have been a lot of reverse engineering and rethinking – but also a lot of new discoveries made in the process?
Reverse engineering is actually a good way to describe it. I had to dismantle its theatrical construction and rebuild it as a narrative for cinema beginning simply with character and action; who did what to whom. And once you dismantle something and bring it back to its basic elements new possibilities emerge and as it was an adaptation of my own work I felt fairly free with the material. So some important shifts were made... Sarah in the play becomes Patrick in the film... a gender change. Paula enters the story in the film when she is only referred to in the play. The character Neil from the play becomes the man who breaks down in Leon's arms in the [film]. And Leon himself becomes the linchpin or the through line in the film because he has something to find out... who killed Valerie but more importantly he has something to find out about himself. But the most important change involves Valerie. In the play she correctly suspects her husband John of having an affair with her client Sarah. In the film she has the same suspicion but she is wrong. So the focus shifts from an actual betrayal to a perceived betrayal and so the psychological framework of the character had shifted substantially.
And why the new title?
The change in title came because we (Jan, Ray and myself) were concerned about the religious connotation of ‘Speaking in Tongues'. It also seemed a little obscure for the film. I'm not sure ‘Lantana' was any less obscure but I was glad to differentiate the two works. I think in the end it has helped the play maintain a separate identity to the film.
I liked Roger Ebert's theory on the title, the spread of this tropical shrub symbolising the spread of certain poisonous emotions and feelings... A key to the heart of the play and film, I think.
Roger has it pretty well right... Lantana being both the literal place in which Valerie is caught and a metaphor for the twisted and entangled nature of our emotional lives and relationships. From a distance it seems quite benign but within it is dark and deadly. Something like that.
Final question: is it actually hard to look back at Speaking in Tongues here in 2011, as you implied in your first response? How do you feel about the play after all this time?
I feel moved that the play is now regarded as a classic. Only the next generation can decide that... the generation that comes after you, after the time the play was first done. I'm really delighted that younger directors want to do their own productions and I'm keen to see the play anew through their eyes. I'm intrigued by what new audiences will make of it. I'm just glad that it has held up... that it still has something to offer. Darryn King