The sleight of hand that ushers an audience to follow one strand of narrative whilst masking the full picture is a timeless dramatic device. Chopping up the order and sequence is another. The novel and the new here is the fact that, alongside the aforementioned, the audience is placed centre stage – on swivel chairs, no less – with the action enveloping them.
This approach is the brainchild of Doughnut Productions and it is undeniably an enticing proposition. For their latest instalment, they have opted to focus on Australian playwright Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues; his intricately woven tale of love, deceit, sex and death.
Matters open with a confusing collage of sound and action, as two couples pace back and forth speaking identical dialogue. In each direction, there is a married partner seeking to cheat on their spouse through a one night stand. As an opening, it is an incoherent jumble and a sure misfire. It is one that has been present in other versions and remains a kink in need of ironing here.
For the first half, further episodic pieces present. Two women meet at a bar; their impromptu chatter elicits a depressing realisation that the lonely, neglected wife and this single woman are both involved with the same man. Also, a tale is regaled of a man disappearing by the beach, and a woman who witnesses a local neighbour with cuts on his face and a woman’s shoe in his possession. She is concerned over his involvement with a reported missing woman.
This might all sound like a mishmash of unrelated incidents and it is true to say that the audience faces a bitter struggle to get a hold of the story up until the interval. For the second half, however, there is a firmer grasp on convention. The slow burn pays off as the revelations are drip-fed with a satisfying frequency.
The performances are versatile and this small cast of four must handle multiple characters. They pull this off effortlessly and to single out any one, or even two, would be unfair to the troupe as a whole. In respect of the staging, the unusual set-up comes at the expense of a lavish presentation. There is not a lot to work with at the fringes of the theatre space, but there is an undeniable and unavoidable immersive element to this approach that is rewarding. It is to be noted that there is also a projection screen utilised that provides accompaniment for some passages, with wordless clips emphasising the stories being told by the characters.
Whilst it would be a stretch to label this work as an out and out success, it is a complementary meeting of subject matter, material and direction. Caps must be doffed to director Kathleen Douglas for being bold and forthright with a subject that deserves no less. Her talents have been well served by a consummate cast.
Finally, as far as Speaking in Tongues is concerned, as much of an oxymoron as it may be, Bovell highlights that whilst we regard trust as an essential glue in the relationships we form, the reality is also that it is an intangible construct that might well be a figment of our imagination. After all, do we ever really know another soul apart from our own? That’s ample food for thought and one to ponder as you head towards the exit.
Review by Greg Wetherall
Speaking in Tongues
by Andrew Bovell
Nine parallel lives – interlocked by four infidelities, one missing person and a mysterious stiletto – are woven through a fragmented series of confessionals and interrogations that gradually reveal a darker side of human nature.
London’s Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone on 1st and 2nd April 2016