According to Hart, the audience and its reactions, good or bad, have no impact on his performance – though he acknowledged, after shouts from the stalls, that theatregoers do serve some purpose, by ultimately paying his wages through their ticket-buying. Hart’s comments and the other insights of his colleagues and director Toby Frow made for a suitably fascinating end to an evening watching Andrew Bovell’s fascinatingly enigmatic and complex play.
Speaking in Tongues centres on nine parallel lives - interlocked by four infidelities, one missing person and a mysterious stiletto - which are interwoven through a fragmented series of confessionals, interrogations and inter-cut scenes. The four-strong cast, playing all nine characters, comprises Hart, Lucy Cohu, Kerry Fox and John Simm.
First seen in author Andrew Bovell’s native Australia in 1996, the play had its UK premiere at Hampstead Theatre in 2000 and was adapted by Bovell for the big screen as the 2001 film Lantana starring Antony LaPaglia, Barbara Hershey and Geoffrey Rush. Frow’s production is designed by Ben Stones, with lighting by Johanna Town and video projections by Lorna Heavey.
Last night’s Q&A with cast members Lucy Cohu, Kerry Fox and Ian Hart and director Toby Frow took place in the theatre immediately after the performance and was chaired by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock. Click on the 'play' button above to listen to it in full. Edited transcript highlights follow …
On choosing to be involved in this play
Kerry Fox: I was working with the woman who produced Lantana, which is based on this script and is also written by Andrew Bovell. And she had said you have to do it, Andrew Bovell is such a wonderful man, you have to work with him if you get the chance. And I had met Toby, and I found him intriguing. It was more the people - because the play is so complicated, and on a first and second read, you really have no idea what’s going on! I remember not knowing which characters I was going to play. I had to get my agent to check quite near the beginning of rehearsals. That wasn’t what it was about for me. I liked the themes of it, but it was more what was going to happen with it, the potential of it.
Ian Hart: I’m very old-fashioned; I just quite liked the play. It was a good read. I knew who I was playing, I’d written it down. When my agent sent me the letter, I wrote down the names.
Lucy Cohu: I really loved the play. I found it was a world that I wanted to become involved in. I found those characters fascinating. They were going through these experiences and what happens to them and how the experiences change them. And then I met Toby and thought he was alright. I had a great talk with him about it. And also working with John, Ian and Kerry, three actors whose work I really respected.
On why Bovell specifies that four actors play nine characters
Ian Hart: The universality of the fact that we all experience the same things regardless of where we’re from, what we do for jobs, what our educational backgrounds are. There’s a commonality of human experience. And one of the ways the author tries to illustrate that is by having us all speaking in a similar way. The writing is all very similar. I don’t mean that in a bad way, I mean that in the fact that he doesn’t write specific vernacular dialogue for specific characters. He writes in a general way that he has, a poetic way, but it’s nevertheless his way.
Kerry Fox: He didn’t specify where the double ups have to happen. Other productions have doubled up in different ways.
Toby Frow: It’s also cheaper to do it that way. He was writing at the time for the Melboure Workers’ Theatre, and they didn’t have pots of money. A lot of the plays he was writing at the time were for very small ensemble theatre companies and so that was a consideration. I don’t know if that was the only consideration. I think he’s fascinated in the links between people and the journeys that people go on being very similar rather than poles apart, which is why we took the decision to not have wigs and moustaches and other ways we could have to highlight the differences between them.
Ian Hart: You get offered a job, you get offered three jobs! There is something to be had from that. As an actor, you do this often enough, you get bored. This play gives you three opportunities, three ways of doing this. If I find that John’s less interesting, I have to work hard on Neil, and if I find Neil’s dropping off, I have to find a way of making Nick more interesting. That was one of the reasons I liked playing three characters.
Lucy Cohu: In the early stages during the performance, I’d figure out something about Sonja and lose Valerie and then I’d find something about Valerie and lose Sonja. All the time working with that, it keeps you on your toes.
On rehearsing the overlapping opening scenes
Toby Frow: I always knew it was something that had to be treated more like a dance in a musical or more aptly like a song with four harmonies. Each of those harmonies has its own path but the magic of it doesn’t begin until they are truly together. As with anything that’s that complicated, we just drilled it and drilled it and drilled it, and I deliberately didn’t put it on its feet altogether for quite a long time. I was informed by the writer that once we did, it would all start making perfect sense., that we’d have amazing revelations and discoveries. But it took even longer until we put it in front of an audience, for me watching it, that I really started to understand what he was talking about. It feels like it flies and it has a different sort of energy when it has an audience bouncing off it.
On the audience
Kerry Fox: I think audiences were incredibly important. For me every night is very different, sometime subtly, sometimes not so subtly. And the audience are participants in what we are creating. And so you are very alert to what sort of evening they want to have and where they want to go. It really affects it for me.
Ian Hart: That’s what I hate about theatre. What Kerry’s just outlined as a pleasure and a joy to me is an intrusion on what I do for a living. The audience, I can’t stand you. Collectively, not individually, I’m sure you’re all lovely people, but as a collective entity I find you abhorrent. I genuinely don’t understand from your side of that divide what it is that you want. That’s up to you to decide, what it is you come in with, whatever it is you want to get out of this experience. As far as I’m concerned, it ends at the edge of the stage and I work on the stage with my colleagues, tell the story, and obey the writer’s instructions and the director’s intentions. What you get out of it is entirely up to you. I don’t feel it’s my responsibility to respond to your laughter, your crisp packets. It’s not my responsibility to take on board.
Toby Frow: It doesn’t really matter, does it? Who would have thought that Ian would have said that based on the performance you saw. It doesn’t matter if he’s telling the story in the way the story needs to be told, it’s largely irrelevant. He’s not in a panto where your job is partly to incite the audience.
On whether the play’s subject matter affects the actors’ emotions
Ian Hart: If you’re doing your job properly, it should do.
Lucy Cohu: There are some nights where you are just knackered, you’ve had a bad day and you’re almost going through the motions. If I have a bad show, the next night then I’m back in there again. I think the longer it goes on and the more I’m doing it, in a way you stop doing it, and you let it do you. And it takes you to places you weren’t expecting. I don’t think I could do it for six months, it’s quite draining. You find yourself tense, emotional.
On the structure of the play
Toby Frow: My agent said she thought the writer had a male understanding of structure and a female understanding of character. By and large, audiences come and are fascinated by this play, and it goes in all sorts of different directions. It is not everyone’s cup of tea by any means, and some people who don’t like it. What I think they are wrestling with is the sort of way in which the complicated structure marries in with the themes and characters at the heart of it.
Lucy Cohu: As an audience member, it must be hard watching it, we’ve had six weeks to figure out what’s going on and we’re still figuring it out, but to watch it must take concentration.
On the use of filmic elements
Toby Frow: There was a sort of evolution. In the early previews, we had a lot more use of film, especially in part one. We introduced a lot of the characters that are seen in part two in little moments when those stories are told. For example, when Kerry’s telling the story about Nick throwing the shoe, we caught a glimpse of Nick’s face in the window. But it’s what happens with the play when you’re working on it, you come back to what’s in the script what works, rather than what you crowbar in there. In part two it fits, because they are all going through the same nightmare so putting the image of the woods in felt right whereas some of the stuff we did in part one didn’t.
On the play’s central themes
Kerry Fox: Our lives are very complicated and we struggle through them. Andrew Bovell wrote in his notes that what we’re all trying to do is survive our lives. And I think that is central to the play. And hopefully that’s where it hits people.
Lucy Cohu: We’re just having a go.
Kerry Fox: Trying to get through it, we face dilemmas and trials, we all face them. And with age you go through more and more. Everybody finds a different route through, but by sharing those experiences we can hope to help each other out, or have a greater understanding, or clues next time round, or a little bit of ease with ourselves.
Toby Frow: It’s about the ways in which we hurt the people we love, sometimes consciously. And that doesn’t mean we don’t love them, it’s probably part of loving them. The various different aspects of love in this play really fascinate me.