A man and a woman meet at a club and leave together. They’re both nervous… they’re also both married to other people. What they don’t know is that at the exact same time, their respective spouses are having a very similar encounter. But while their conversations mirror each other, sometimes word for word, ultimately the outcomes are different – only one couple actually goes through with it. The other, overcome with guilt, returns home to confess, only to discover their partners’ betrayal.
This all happens simultaneously – two couples, two rooms, two confessions, two marital breakdowns – within the first fifteen minutes of Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues. And that’s okay, because Doughnut Productions have more than one stage; in fact they have four. In a unique format, their productions take place predominantly around the sides of the room, while the audience watch from the centre, on chairs that swivel to face the action.
This is brilliant for many reasons: first, it means even if you’re stuck behind the tallest person in the room for one scene, they won’t be bothering you for long. Second, it allows for scenes like the one described above, where multiple events happen simultaneously but in different locations. And finally, it turns the play into a truly immersive experience; director Kathleen Douglas has the action literally taking place all around us, so it’s much easier to see how scenes mirror each other, and to get caught up in the drama.
And speaking of drama, there’s plenty to go around. In what initially seems an inexplicable twist, both couples reunite and share stories of odd encounters – one, with a man whose fiancée left him without explanation, the other with a neighbour who may or may not have murdered someone. It’s only in act 2 that these stories begin to make sense, as we meet another two couples and begin to truly appreciate the intricacy of Andrew Bovell’s script, where everything slots neatly together just in the nick of time… but still leaves us with enough unanswered questions to ensure we go away deep in thought.
Further emphasising how all the characters’ lives interconnect, a versatile cast of four play them all, switching roles at the interval, and each becoming the opposite of their act 1 self to the point where they’re almost unrecognisable. So Phil Aizlewood’s policeman becomes a murder suspect; Kate Austen’s betrayed wife a therapist. Most dramatic are the transformations of Georgina Periam, from ‘plain Jane’ to seductive therapy patient Sarah, and Andrew Seddon, the only actor to take on three roles – from the rambling but likeable Pete, he becomes fragile, obsessive Neil, and finally John, who seems oddly distant and unconcerned about the disappearance of his wife.
Speaking in Tongues is a tale of two halves – the first a reasonably straightforward, and frequently humorous, story about infidelity; the second a tense murder mystery. The common thread to both, though, is relationships: what it really means to love someone and what constitutes a betrayal. Interestingly, it also invites us to question our own response – why is it we’re prepared to laugh about adultery, but draw the line at murder? Is adultery now something we just accept without question, unless it brings with it darker consequences?
I’ll admit my primary reason for going along to this play was that I was intrigued by the swivel chairs. And don’t get me wrong, they’re great fun and work really well, especially with a story as segmented as this one. But the unusual format shouldn’t detract from the production itself, which is dramatic, compelling, and definitely left me wanting to see more from this innovative company.