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Hong Kong 2020: Speaking in Tongues by Hong Kong Repertory Theatre (Preview)

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HONG KONG – A complex web of relationships meeting a mysterious array of plot developments, Speaking in Tongues features four actors in nine roles playing three seemingly unrelated episodes, presenting multiple events from different perspectives. The story and its ramifications from diverse angles unfold as the narrative traverses time and space, with character relationships overlapping and crisscrossing as we face the choice between betrayal and trust. When Speaking in Tongues premiered in Sydney in 1996, it garnered tremendous acclaim and won an AWGIE for Best Play. Since then, the play has graced stages in Europe and America, and was adapted into the award-winning film Lantana.

Speaking in Tongues is written by Australian playwright Andrew Bovell and translated by Li Huan-hsung (Taiwan). It is now adapted into Cantonese and directed by HKRep Artistic Director Anthony Chan. This production features HKRep company members Chris Sun, Karrie Tan, Mercy Wong and Chan Kiu.

Speaking in Tongues begins with two couples embroiled in extra-marital affairs. A high-heeled shoe in the bushes, a therapy session, a few phone messages and numerous love letters trace the overlapping relationships and conflicting emotional associations entangling nine characters. Loneliness and marital bonds are overwhelmed by the thrill to connect intimately with a stranger. Why are we so ill-equipped to speak of love? Despite our best efforts in expressing our emotions, words often fail to communicate what is lodged deep in our hearts.

In the preface to the printed edition of the script, playwight Andrew Bovell writes: “Speaking in Tongues is about the right and wrong of emotional conduct. It’s about contracts being broken between intimates while deep bonds are forged between strangers. It maps an emotional landscape typified by a sense of disconnection and a shifting moral code. It’s about people yearning for meaning and grabbing onto small moments of hope and humour to combat an increasing sense of alienation.”

Poet Li Huan-hsungtranslated and directed Speaking in Tongues for Taiwan. In an interview with the China Times, he emphasised the play’s theme as “how trust can destroy and how betrayal can redeem”. He also said, “although the playwright is Australian and the story seems common, the way human character and urban lives are depicted in the script and the overlapping narratives present a challenge to the actors and the director. The chilling effect of the dialogue and plot resonate deeply with the audience.”

The subject and structure of Speaking in Tongues strike a deep chord with Cantonese adaptor and director Anthony Chan. To him, “Bovell’s script shines a light on human suffering and how it weighs on life. The complex interplay of the characters and plotlines seems to posit a difficult mathematical formula, or perhaps an exciting game of chess. In the beginning, things are murky, yet we find that there is a way to solve the puzzle. Moreover, the characters are always at the precipice of a breakdown, yet they must swallow their tears because they are in the company of others. They must continue the dialogue rather than grind to a halt. Perhaps they are awaiting the moment when everything will explode. This might indeed be the case for many people today—in face of life, in face of other people, no matter how much we suffer inside, we must bear with it and continue to live.”

Speaking in Tongues plays from 1st to 19th April 2020 at Hong Kong City Hall Theatre. For tickets, visit their website

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