Speaking in Tongues (Duke of Yorks 22/9/08) + Streetcar - More Desire (Donmar 17/9/09) 20 September 2009

It's difficult to know what to say. When I hear the phrase 'speaking in tongues', I think of someone possessed, speaking in a language that one is not familiar with or understands. I don't think the intention of the play Speaking in Tongues at the Duke of York's Theatre was on the demonic level but I certainly had the feeling that someone, somewhere was demonically possesed and as a result should not be held accountable.

Drawn by the cast more than the writer I had high hopes of seeing something new and interesting. It wasn't either. The play itself, written by Andrew Bovell has been around since 1996 and adapted into the film Lantana in 2001, is not new, not even to London having played at the Hampstead Theatre in 2000. I failed on that level. So that leaves interesting - yes it was, for fleeting moments.

Mr Bovell's most recent play When The Rain Stops premiered at the Almeida back in May. I saw that production. It was infinitely more interesting than Speaking in Tongues but was let down, in my opionion, and in a similar way, by some strange directorial choices. (And it was a long haul of an evening - around 2 hours with no interval).

Speaking in Tounges has four actors, each playing dual roles. In this production they are played by John Simm (Olivier nomination for Elling, the original Life on Mars); Ian Hart (see the Three More Sleepless Nights at the National post); Lucy Cohu (Blood Wedding at the Lyric Hammersmith, The Queen's Sister for Channel 4 for which she received BAFTA and Emmy nominations) and Kerry Fox (Cruel and Tender at the Young Vic, the films An Angel at my Table, Intimacy, and Shallow Grave). I don't think it's giving anything away to say that all characters are connected in some way. It's definitely not giving anything away because you can see the connections flying at you a mile away. The reveals that connect the characters were the biggest let down. Once that mystery disappeared all you were left with were style and perfomances.

The play is heavily stylised. HEAVILY stylised. I can go one step further and say that it was overly stylised. It's structure overshadowed everything else. The only thing that could have made it interesting would have been the performances but as this was a preview it was evident that the characterisations were still in the formation stage. This was especially true of John Simm who seemed not to know who his character was. Judging by the text I would say that of all the characters, his was probably the least defined. This is not to say that the others were better written but they had something about them that I think an actor could easily hook into and build upon - some tick or habit that could give a clue. Poor Mr Simm just had that he was a policeman in a bad marriage as a character.

To give an example of the style. The play opens with two sets of couples, each embarking on a one night stand. All four characters are in the same bedroom set, crossing back and forth and having a conversation with their chosen partner. However, if that wasn't difficult enough to follow, the dialogue is split between all four characters. Some start a line and it's finished by another - it could be their chosen partner or not. Other times two characters responded to a question by saying the same thing at the same time. This scene quickly became about the style of the delivery and not about the characters. As this was a preview I could tell that all four actors were concentrating heavily on getting the words and timings right. As a result, most semblances of character had to take a backseat. It's a neat trick but it gave me a headache and I can't ever rember saying that about a play. Not only did you have to keep on top of who was saying what, when, to whom and why they were overlapping, but visually it became a sort of tennis match (I was in the fifth row centre). Things calmed down in the two separate scenes that followed, each with only two characters, but I quickly lost interest in what the characters were saying. There was no real insight and once you got it, you got it.

Act 2 had four different characters. It opened with two characters, with a connection, telling the audience their thoughts, with alternating dialogue. They were speaking about the same event but from two different perspectives. Again, once you got it, you got . And to make it more difficult, each was seated at opposite ends of the stage which made following what was being said even more difficult. The natural human response to someone speaking is to look at them, so - it was definitely a Wimbledon game for this section. Through this act, more of the 'mystery' is revealed, but the audience pretty much already knows what's going to happen and how and to whom, and then it ends. Just like that. Over and out.

To be fair, the performances were good. You could see that with time it could all come together. Kerry Fox especially shown as the one who has most developed her characters, with Ian Hart coming in second, followed by Lucy Cohu. Normally I would say, it's a preview, give it time, but the play is set and it doesn't add up to much. Strangely though, for a 2 hour 20min play with one interval it really went by quickly. I can't figure that one out.

I think the director, Toby Frow, and designer Ben Stones may be partially to blame. It seems to me that for a play that is so complicated in its delivery, one would want to make it as clear as possible instead of adding to the confusion. And the set. I have the feeling that portions of it were remnants from the production of Tom Stoppard's Rock and Roll that was at the same theatre a few years back. The bare, black 'bricks' looked really familiar. There is also a heavy use of video images, especially in the second act. I felt like I may have slipped into a film showing my mistake. Considering the discussions about the differences between the film and the play in the programme, this was probably a way for them to speak to modern audiences and make it more 'accessible'. Just speculation.

At the end of one of the essays in the programme: "Frow states 'The play does not provide easy answers.' But he does hope that it will give rise to vigorous discussion, to communication on one level at least." This surely came to pass. During both the interval and after the play (after a lukewarm ovation) I overheard many discussions, mainly trying to figure out what it meant. I think people were thinking too hard about this one. Usually, if you think it's really complicated and you can't figure it out, it usually is because it isn't.

STEETCAR! I went back for a second serving of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Donmar. Mostly because I love the play but also I always find it interesting to see how a production has progressed during a run. As expected, it has moved, changed, developed and redirected itself. I loved it even more.

Here are the developments (all character based).

Elliot Cowan (Stanley - above) - has dropped his Polish-ised New Orleans accent. I didn't have a issue with it before but I have to say it took the focus off how he was speaking and allowed you to involve yourself with the character.

Barnaby Kay (Mitch) - more forcful, aggressive. Could have been a direct result of Rachel Weiss' performance.

Rachel Weiss (Blanche) - this was the biggest development. There was more definition in her flitting from reality to magic. A much bigger arc from the beginning to the end. Also, as a side note, she was still phlegmy (see original Streetcar post). Either she still has a bit of a cold after all this time or it's some sort of method acting.

On a whole, I would say the production and performances were more aggressive, they had a 'let's go for it' attitude which served it well. There is always a danger that it could tip too far to the other side and lose that delicate balance, like the one Blanche has in her mind. But, it didn't happen. It's also interesting to note that this was an evening performance on matinee day. I wonder if they boosted the energy level in order to get though a second performance? Just a thought.