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.