Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was a marvellous Australian film called Lantana. It was directed by a marvellous director named Ray Lawrence and starred marvellous actors, like Rachel Blake and Vince Colosimo as I recall. But who knew it was based on a marvellous play by Andrew Bovell, called Speaking In Tongues?
Two women go into a bar. Well, a nightclub. They wander in while we’re still wandering in to Sydney’s Griffin Theatre. They epitomise the self-conscious denial of self-consciousness clamouring for cool of the nightclubbed. Two blokes happen by. Their conversations overlap: it’s oddly compelling and intriguing and, even more oddly, not at all annoying, as it’s handled so sublimely well: a tribute to both director (Sam Strong) and actors (Lucy Bell, Caroline Craig, Andy Rodoreda and Christopher Stollery). All the latter play more than one character and cross that difficult bridge comfortably, without encountering any trolls.
It’s always uplifting, energising and inspiring to see such standards of craft, but even more the case when the writing is so transcendent as to (almost) overshadow even these.
Dayna Morissey’s set strikes just the right note: there’s a certain coldness and detachment in its understated elegance, mimicking the bleak colours of the emotional states of the characters that inhabit it. Danny Pettingill’s lighting complements, while Steve Francis’ sound design and composition never intrudes or makes a nuisance of itself, but gently evokes and reinforces the moods of the work.
The six degrees of separation, dissonances and consonances unfurl at a suspenseful and poetic pace: this is a play full of intersecting lines, very deliberately drawn, yet in ways that authentically mirror the unfoldment of real lives. Our intimates become strangers; strangers, intimates. Life is really f-cked-up. And wonderful. At once.
Bovell’s mastery ensures all of life is encompassed in the familiar, inescapable anxieties that are as regular and constant as breath. Where is my life going? Am I with the right person? Does it get any better? How long have I got? We feel the particularity of pain of each character’s yearnings, fears and embedded insecurities, as well as the generalised, universal vein through which flows a constancy of existential anxiety: fear of the unknown; what might or could happen; fear of loss and loneliness which, ironically, keeps us feeling, or barely repressing, both.
It’s possibly the best Australian play in a generation or two; a must-see, one with which we can step proudly into the theatrical world. In fact, we have: it’s gone global. And Strong’s production is bloody marvellous, in almost every respect.
The details: Speaking in Tongues is at the Griffin Theatre (SBW Stables) until March 19. Tickets on the venue website.