Though there are often up to four characters on stage at any one time a sense of loneliness and emotional isolation permeates Andrew Bovell’s intricate play. Spouses are cheated on or abandoned, lies are told, pleas for help go unheard, and the theatre echoes with the tinny ring of a voice leaving increasingly anxious answer-phone messages.
Written in 1996, Speaking in Tongues was first staged in the UK in 2000 at Hampstead Theatre. Bovell would later turn his play into a film, Lantana, starring Barbara Hershey, Anthony LaPaglia and Geoffrey Rush. The stage version is a far less linear animal than the film, though it retains a cinematic feel: voices often merge and overlap, the chronology of events is not always clear and the play is intentionally unanchored to a particular setting or location. The different accents employed by the performers in Toby Frow’s production add to this impression.
The first half of the play feels almost self-contained. It begins with two parallel one night stands. Two married couples, without knowing it, swap partners and they both end up in different shabby motels. Though it’s unclear whether these things happen on the same night or at different times these scenes play out in unison, around one central bed, with the voices of the characters overlapping and criss-crossing. But while one couple. Leon and Jane, end up, despite their respective anxieties, having sex, the other two, Pete and Sonja, can’t go through with it. Guilt or fear or love for their partner, or maybe of combination of all three, overwhelms them and they have to stop.
The complex relationship between these four people and the fallout from their infidelities take up the whole of the first half. Between each couple a story is shared about a strange event that has been witnessed. Jane has seen a neighbour dispose of what she thinks might be evidence of a crime, while Leon relates a tale of stranger’s obsession with a former girlfriend who went away to America and never returned.
In the second half, these two stories are picked up and unfolded, with the same four actors playing these new characters, bringing the total up to nine, including the neighbour suspected of a crime, the psychoanalyst who has gone missing after her car broke down on a country road, the psychoanalyst’s husband, and one of her clients. This second half continues the theme of disconnection and Frow seems to have paid particular attention to the spaces between these people; lighting is used to make them seem isolated even when sharing the stage with others.
Frow has assembled a superb cast. Simm is less endearing than he was in the wonderful Elling, but then he is playing a much drier role. He brings a degree of warmth and humour to the part of Leon, the unfaithful cop and, in the second act, morphs convincingly into Nick, the accused neighbour. Hart manages to differentiate between his three characters through subtle shifts in posture and voice. Lucy Cohu is vibrant and hot-blooded as Sonja and physically and emotionally buttoned up as Valerie, the psychoanalyst, while Kerry Fox seems somehow physically bigger than herself, dancing around her living room with a heavy footed inelegance as the frustrated Jane.
Bovell’s play is an impeccably measured piece of writing, even if he relies too heavily on narrative coincidence to draw the various characters together. But despite the strong performances it remains a chilly thing. Perhaps this is inevitable given that the play is so concerned with miscommunication and with the gap between what is said and unsaid, but a crucial distance remains unbridged.
Only occasionally does the play let its characters come together, to connect, and when this happens the actors make the most of it. Simm’s Leon dances tenderly with his wife, placing his face in her hands, losing himself in her. In these moments it’s possible to feel the human need to be held, to be needed and wanted and loved. It’s only a shame these moments come so infrequently.
Reviewed for musicOMH.