SPEAKING IN TONGUES by Andrew Bovell, directed by Philip Riccio, with Richard Clarkin, Jonathan Goad, Hélène Joy and Yanna McIntosh. Presented by Company Theatre and Canadian Stage at the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). Opens tonight (Thursday, November 1) and runs to November 24, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm and Saturday 2 pm. $22-$49. 416-368-3110. See listing.
It's taken nearly a decade for Australian-born actor Hélène Joy to make her Canadian stage debut.
By coincidence, the script, Speaking In Tongues, is by Australian playwright Andrew Bovell.
You might know Joy from her award-winning TV and film work, including Durham County and An American In Canada. But to most TV viewers, she's Dr. Julia Ogden in the popular Murdoch Mysteries.
Joy performed the classics onstage at home but never got into the theatre world when she moved to Canada.
"Speaking In Tongues sounded familiar when I read it, and only later did I realize that I'd seen the original production in Australia when I was first out of acting school," she says. "But I was too young then to appreciate its complexities, the way it talks about relationships and what we often hide when we're closely involved with others."
It's a challenging play, she admits, with four actors playing nine characters in a series of seemingly unrelated stories involving various infidelities, a missing person and a mysterious stiletto shoe. If you saw the excellent production of Bovell's When The Rain Stops Falling at the 2011 Shaw Festival, you know how subtly and surprisingly he can weave his narrative.
"The story requires a level of emotional intimacy, honesty and connection that's really demanding," Joy admits. "Bovell - who wrote the script for Strictly Ballroom and also the film version of Tongues, called Lantana - asks you to deliver lines that at first seem unrelated to the storyline.
"But as you go along, digging deeper, you find the links that tie speeches together. It's like life: you skim along so much of the time, not questioning, and then in an emotional, vulnerable moment understand the actual depth of what you're doing or saying."
But understanding the emotions in a scene is just the start of cracking its meaning. In the first section, we meet two married couples; each person considers adultery with someone from the other couple. Bovell places them all onstage together, has them echo each other's lines and occasionally overlap in their speeches in choral fashion.
"After working on the play for a while, we've dubbed it Everest," smiles Joy. "Those early scenes demand not only that you speak the lines in unison with someone else who's onstage with you, but you also have to distinguish that you're in a ‘different' room and reality than they are. It means taking your verbal cue from someone in that other scene but your emotional cue from someone who's in the scene with you."
Joy plays two very different women. Jane is part of the quartet of potential adulterers; the other is Sarah, whom we meet in a therapy session.
"Jane's husband sees her as fragile, needy and dependent on him; by the end of her arc, she understands, like it or not, that she can't be in a situation in which she's not happy.
"Sarah couldn't be more different. She's something of a mystery and remains so until the last minutes of the play. She's unlikeable, not the kind of person you'd want as a friend, and that makes her fun to play. Ironically, though Sarah spends her entire stage life in therapy, she doesn't really want to change who she is."
Given the demands of a script that jumps around in time and depicts different realities, the play has come together slowly for the actors, who must present both its suggestiveness and some road markers for viewers.
"Even the playwright admits that there can be moments of frustration for everyone involved, actors and audience. We're aware of that as we work, but we're also finding it stimulating in a way that many plays aren't."