Saturday, May 5, 2012

Speaking in Tongues by Andrew Bovell

L-R Helen McFarlane as Sonja, Duncan Ley as Pete
Rob de Fries as Leon, Lainie Hart as Jane

Speaking in Tongues by Andrew Bovell.  Canberra Repertory Theatre directed by Ross McGregor, May 4-19, 2012

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 4

I’ve spent some time working out why this production is very good but not better.  Of course, Bovell’s writing is, in itself, quite fascinating and, I think, better in this original stage play than in the later adaptation as the film Lantana.  On stage the work is more focussed and concentrated, without the distractions of realistic filming.

From this thinking comes the explanation I’m looking for.  Ross McGregor, in an interview in the Canberra Times, said that his intention was to use only four actors, as was done in the original production (1996) and again in the 2011 revival at Griffin Theatre (at The Stables, Kings Cross, Sydney).  However, and I guess perhaps because Canberra Rep is a community theatre group, McGregor’s auditions attracted enough good actors for him to decide to use separate actors for the ‘extra’ parts in Act 2.

So we have the two married couples in Act 1 – Rob de Fries as Leon with Helen McFarlane as Sonja, and Lainie Hart as Jane with Duncan Ley as Pete.  Guess what happened from the picture above.  All were excellent in their roles, using the stylisation of the set, the symbolic use of dance and the techniques of storytelling to great effect.

In Act 2, Ley appears briefly as the innocent man in the bar whom Valerie – Bridgette Black – insanely screams at, while de Fries is in Leon’s professional role as the policeman who interviews Valerie’s husband John after she disappears.  John is played by Zach Raffan.  Jane and Pete’s next-door neighbour Nick, who threw the missing Valerie’s shoe into the vacant block opposite, is played by Sam Hannan-Morrow, under police interrogation.  The other two characters, originally from Leon’s story of the man, Neil, who left his brogue shoes on the beach before apparently drowning himself, and the girl he believed would marry him, Sarah, are played by Raoul Cramer and Eliza Bell.  To complete the plot, of course, Sarah is the patient with relationship problems being treated by clinical psychologist Valerie, who has her own psychological problem, being afraid of men because of childhood abuse – at least according to John.

If you consider the cast of Lantana, all 32 of them playing many roles that are not even mentioned in Speaking in Tongues, you can see that McGregor’s version of Act 2 is more like the film version, while Act 1 is played closer to Bovell’s original conception on stage.  Using only four actors, in Act 2 the story told by Leon to Sonja (about the story told to Leon by Neil when they met on the beach) and the story told by Jane to Pete (about what she saw Nick do and what she did in response) are explored and interpreted as if each of these four are trying to imagine what really happened. 

So, for example, we have an actor playing Leon, and Leon interviewing John.  After all, Leon has told Pete that he is a policeman, but is he really and does he actually interview John, or is it Pete who imagines Leon interviewing the husband of the woman who has disappeared (which apparently did really happen, because Pete has seen the newspaper report, not just heard about it in Jane’s story)?  Or again, perhaps Pete just imagines that the woman who screamed at him in the bar was the woman who disappeared.  There are questions of this kind about all the stories told in Act 2.

I wasn’t conscious of all this thinking while watching the play last night, but I felt that the intensity and the grip of the drama which was so strong in the first Act seemed to dissipate in the second.  And an odd thing was that when Ley appeared, and de Fries appeared, my attention was suddenly grabbed again.  And it was a disappointment that McFarlane and Hart only reappeared for the curtain call after such a strong showing in Act 1.

So, though I certainly recommend this production, with its interesting set design (you can watch the video of its development in the foyer during interval), I wonder if it might still have been better to have kept to Bovell’s original use of only four actors.