wed 25/11/2020

Speaking in Tongues, Duke of York's | reviews, news & interviews

Speaking in Tongues, Duke of York's

Speaking in Tongues, Duke of York's

Messy revival of play that inspired the film Lantana

Take four superb actors - Lucy Cohu, Kerry Fox, Ian Hart and John Simm - cast them in a revival of a play that inspired a haunting film, and what do you get? On the evidence of last night’s opening performance of Speaking in Tongues, a right mess, that’s what.

Australian writer Andrew Bovell (who worked with Baz Luhrmann on Strictly Ballroom) and whose latest play, When the Rain Stops Falling, was staged at the Almeida in London earlier this year) adapted his 1996 play five years later as the film Lantana, starring Barbara Hershey, Anthony LaPaglia and Geoffrey Rush. With its interlocking stories and a wealth of filmic images described in the text - a woman’s single shoe discarded in a car, an empty telephone box late at night at the side of a lonely road, a pair of men’s brown brogues left at the edge of the sea - one doesn’t wonder that Speaking in Tongues was made into such compelling cinema. What a shame, then, that someone thought it was time to revisit the original.

We are in adjoining hotel rooms where two couples, all unhappy in their marriages, but for different reasons, are each about to have a one-night stand with a stranger. In the first of many plot contrivances, the couples inadvertently trade partners; one couple go ahead with their adulterous fling, the other do not, and the repercussions on their relationships are explored with much intercutting dialogue and in two long (very long) monologues.

In the second act the stories told in the monologues are brought to life with a host of new characters (nine roles in total are played by the actorly quartet) including a psychiatrist and her patient, her husband and a man who comes to her aid after her car breaks down late at night. Again, outrageous coincidence connects them all and slowly we are being led to a very dark denouement.

Bovell’s interwoven storytelling is so non-linear and choppy that it’s difficult to engage with the characters, and he throws in so many subjects for examination in their stories that little sticks. The play’s many and complex themes - love, alienation, trust, the random connections humans make, to name just a few competing for our attention - are enough to make one’s brain hurt. And brain pain plus lack of emotional investment quickly equals boredom.

Matters are not helped by Toby Frow’s underpowered direction and the author’s love of tricksy devices, such as the Chorus-like structure he employs in the opening scenes. Two or more actors speak the same lines together or in overlapping dialogue, but the performers are so intent of remaining in sync with each other that they forget to act while we struggle to concentrate on what is being said. Do it once and it’s a smart device, do it twice and it’s labouring the point. Do it for several minutes and it’s really bloody irritating.

Bovell’s elliptical writing is the sort of meaty fare that actors love to get their teeth into, but here they struggle to turn it into even occasionally tasty morsels. The cast, all superb actors, are left stranded in this sea of confusion and even the first-night crowd of friends and supporters couldn’t muster a single cheer between them. Here’s a tip: watch Lantana on DVD instead.

Speaking in Tongues is at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London WC2 until 12 December. Book here.

Find Lantana here.

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