Speaking in Tongues

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

By Andrew Bovell
Directed by Shane Bosher
Presented by Silo Theatre
Herald Theatre, Auckland | August 15-September 14

Speaking in Tongues is one of those plays that stuck with me when I woke up the next morning. It wasn’t so much the words of the play as it was the images. Two women sitting across from each other silently with their eyes locked in some kind of battle, a man taking his shoes off for the last time, a hastily scrawled HELP that resonates throughout the entire play, or a woman standing at the bottom of a cliff as rocks fall around her. This is not only an incredible play; it’s a stark and unnerving one.

After two productions of relatively new works, Silo casts back seventeen years or so to Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues for their new production. It’s an interesting choice for a production in 2013 and even though you can occasionally see the stitches in the writing, the play has aged very well and it’s a story that is as relevant now as it would have been in 1996, 2006 or will be in 2026. To summarise the plot of the play would be a disservice, but to make it as plain as I can: it’s about a group of interconnected couples/strangers linked by infidelities, mistakes, and terrible accidents. Right from the opening, where two couples are sparring in a flurry of overlapped and simultaneous dialogue, we know we’re in the hands of a playwright who is not only tremendously clever, but is saying something profound about relationships and the damage we can inflict on each other, intentionally or not.

It takes a remarkable cast to handle the opening scene, which borders on being almost too clever and precise in how it is scripted, but also to carry it with the kind of weight it demands. The four actors assembled here do it justice—and I can’t wait to see how they settle into the bizarre almost EDM-like rhythms of the scene later in the season—but it’s the remainder of the play where they truly take off.

Without spoiling anything, all the actors take on more than one role. In some cases doubling can be distracting or even obscure the point of the play, but here it serves a point and it’s a true delight to see this cast nail one character and then immediately define another without flashy vocal tricks or physicalization.

Allison Bruce is a startlingly imperious Sonja early on, but also levies the character with a compelling vulnerability; she lifts the declaration “I want it all” from tired cliché into something telling. It’s her Valerie that really shines, though, and gives the play its most breathtaking moment courtesy of a torch. Sheer terror is a hard thing to convey and an even harder thing to believe, but Bruce makes it so visceral that I can’t shake it even the day after.

Stephen Lovatt has a difficult job with the most buttoned-down character, but he keeps the character alive and out of well-worn tropes with quick timing and a wicked sense of humour. His other character is a revelation, and he makes a person who could be a villain into a guy who just didn’t know what he was getting himself into.

Oliver Driver has three roles and as written these all fall into an archetype, but he makes every one distinctive and provides the play with just enough comic relief to keep it from being a gruelling experience, especially in the final stretches.

The standout performance, however, has to be Luanne Gordon as Jane and Sarah. From the moment she walks onstage she is brimming with life, intelligence, and charisma. She’s always a joy to watch but the work she does with these two characters is truly incredible. She makes Jane’s slightly daffy, well-meaning housewife into a woman with brimming lost potential—somebody who could’ve done great things but didn’t quite make it that far—and her Sarah is a functioning pile of neuroses that can deflect a criticism faster than it can be made. Gordon lends both these characters a fragility—it looks like they might collapse in front of you—but makes them so distinct and alive that they both become the emotional cruxes of the play. Her characters do unimaginable harm to other people: one is well meaning while the other just doesn’t want to get hurt herself.

The design of the play was initially quite bracing to me. I wasn’t sure how the minimalism would cohere with the text, but as soon as the elements moved around in the space (sometimes literally) I was sold. Verryt’s set design is as fresh and modern as always, consisting of mirror panes and windowpanes that reflect both the characters and the audience. Once the lights come up we don’t see ourselves, but the initial five minutes of looking into ourselves onstage is more than a little discomforting. The first act keeps it relatively simple with the mirrors; the second act steps it up and brings another element to the set design entirely. The characters are now as trapped in their own situations as they’re trapped in these spaces. It’s the only time a set change has ever made me gasp.

Sean Lynch’s lighting design is graceful and occasionally haunting. There are many indelible images in the play, almost all provided by Bosher’s brilliant blocking, but the one that will stick with me for a long time is Luanne Gordon, barely lit by only a few blue neons above the stage, looking for all the world like she’s alone and going to stay like that forever. Paul McLaney’s score is also very effective, and underscores the material nicely without ever overpowering anything going on stage.

However, none of these elements, not the cast nor the craft, would come together into a coherent piece of theatre without Shane Bosher’s direction. Even though this is a very stylised production, there’s a lightness to his touch that allows everything to play out without feeling like it’s being too strictly controlled or prescribed. This is an organic, moving piece of theatre and it’s all the more effective for his direction.

Frankly, this is world-class theatre. The performances and craft on display are bracing and modern and not like anything I’ve seen in Auckland for quite a while. The script, which does show its age at times, is nonetheless intelligent, discerning, and critical of the way we engage in relationships. Once more, Silo forges ahead for contemporary theatre in Auckland, and this may be their best outing of theirs that I’ve seen in some time.