Thursday 26 October 2023

Speaking in Tongues, Free Rain Theatre, ACT Hub, 25 Oct-4 Nov


It's a familiar setup. Two pairs of people meet in a bar and go back to a sordid hotel. The dance of seduction between both of them, the feelings of desperation and inhibition playing against one another, the words so familiar that they overlap. The push and pull secret desires, of confessing more than you should to someone you barely know, of struggling for a connection you know is going to be fleeting - it's a compelling dance between this quartet of characters. And then later that night, re-united with their partners, the scene is just as familiar - the secret you're holding from your spouse, the feeling something has broken, the longing to confess and be forgiven. Beyond that, there's further connections, spiraling out of the home into two mysterious disappearances, emotional chaos and emptiness. 

Andrew Bovell's play "Speaking in Tongues" is a challenging work for actors - a piece for a quartet with an opening twenty minutes consisting largely of overlapping dialogue where two characters are saying exactly the same phrase at the same time, followed by extensive scenes of duologues and interweaving monologues. There's a challenge in the opening twenty minutes to keep the dialogue synchronous yet create individual characters, and then in the later scenes to maintain a connection even when you're the silent one on stage.

 All four cast members pass this test with aplomb and stop the show from feeling like just a technical exercise, into something vibrant and emotionally true. It's a show that resets in Act Two, introducing a whole new quartet of characters- except we've already been told enough striking details about them in Act One that as soon as they're introduced we know exactly who they are and what their role in the wider picture is - and as we delve further into them, the theme of connections sought and lost gets darker, with darker implications about some of the hidden fears that lie between men and women. There's so many strong images created both verbally and onstage (whether it be Steph Robert's obviously tipsy, sardonic Sonja contrasted with Jess Waterhouse's tense Jane in the opening scene, the contrast between Arran McKenna's avuncular Leon and Robibe Haltner's damaged Pete in their meeting at a bar, the effect of a rearranged hairdo and some striking lipstick on Roberts in her change to the stonewalling Sarah in act two, Jess Waterhouse's isolated, desperate Valerie, McKenna's in-over-his-head Nick or Robbie Haltner's pair of lost men in act two, Neil and John).  

Cate Clelland's production is simple - a spare staging with a group of cubes rearranged to create hotel rooms, bars, homes, a therapist's office, a police station, and an isolated backroad - but relishes in the intimacy and direct connection between actor and audience that this allows. Craig Mueller's lighting washes the stage in various noir-ish colours, and Justin Mullins' sound design uses a core song in various cover versions to drive the hypnotic, inquisitive but bewildered nature of the quest for connection that drives everyone. 

This is a powerful, compelling jigsaw puzzle of a play, where in this production the pieces are painted boldly and strongly enough to pull them together with ease. It's gripping, funny, truthful and painful, and altogether powerful, pure theatre. 

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