Friday, October 29, 2010

Theatre Review Tribes by Nina Raine at The Royal Court

“How can you feel a feeling unless you have the word for it”.

‘Tribes’ is a play about a family coping with deafness. 'Tribes' is a play about love.'Tribes' is a play about what families do to each other. 'Tribes' is a play about communication. It's about being human.

Things are changing in this family. And can they cope with those changes? They are a well educated middle class family – two parents – he’s an academic, she’s writing a novel - and three adult children – they’ve all got degrees – Daniel’s doing a PhD - in the limitations of language, Ruth has ambitions to be an opera singer and Billy... - all in their twenties.

It opens around a kitchen table set probably in the country. We see them finishing a meal but we quickly realise it’s a battle ground where five egos battle it out. Ruth and Daniel have come back to the family home. They are all, highly opinionated, very articulate, offensive, aggressive and funny. Except for Billy, who sits silently throughout the meal and arguments, trying to follow what everyone is talking about. But the arguments are all underpinned by love. Or at least they believe that its love and it seems that way to us too.

But the quick fire competitive banter hides uncomfortable truths. These unspoken truths are focussed on Billy. He is deaf from birth. His mother has spent years teaching him how to speak. He has grown up in a safe and protected family home where his deafness is not seen as a handicap. And he has managed to speak and lip read throughout his life. The family especially Chris – the father is opposed to any kind of discrimination or attempt to see Billy as disabled. He rejects the emerging deaf culture with its aggressive challenges to the hearing community.

Billy brings a girlfriend home. Her parents are deaf and she is slowly becoming deaf through a genetic disorder. And although their experiences are different, at this point in their lives they meet and appear to get on well. But the tensions within that relationship tear it apart. However Sylvia introduces Billy to deaf culture. He discovers sign language and a new empowered awareness of his situation and relationship to the rest of the family.

The first Act of the play feels like an Ayckbourn domestic comedy. But the second Act takes the play onto a different level. Billy refuses to lip read. He will only sign and he expects them to learn to sign. He leaves the family home and moves in with Sylvia. As the breach between the family develops – Daniel begins to stutter again – an old problem they thought was solved - and hears voices in his head. Ruth hears her voice on a tape and hates it, she cannot find a job or a boyfriend. Beth – their mother has writers’ block.

This theme of voice is so beautifully played out through the play. The articulate become inarticulate; and the voiceless Billy asserts his signed voice and challenges them all to really and deeply listen to each other rather than speak. I wonder whether their voices have isolated themselves from the rest of the world. I wonder if the only place they feel safe is around that kitchen table in a sort of verbal sword fight. Billy challenges them – offers them another way to live.

At the end Daniel shrunken with insistent, negative, interior voices and a paralysing stutter manages to sign to Billy ‘Love’. And all of them watch – maybe even Chris will learn.

Tribes is beautifully acted. A script that bristles with intelligence and wit. A performance both thought provoking and entertaining.

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