Photo: Simon Annand
Kika Markham, Jacob Casselden, Stanley Townsend, Michelle Terry, Harry Treadaway, Phoebe Waller-Bridge
For the family in Nina Raine’s new play, Tribes, most meals seem to end in disarray. It’s par for the course, unexceptional, the dining table doubling as battlefield.|
Christopher, an academic, clearly relishes a full-throated, calculatedly un-PC rant, while his would-be novelist wife, Beth, and his children Daniel and Ruth all fight to have their say. Opinions are aired, weaknesses are honed in on and picked at and dinner inevitably turns into a cacophonous mess with everyone talking at once and no one really listening to what the others have to say.
The only family member who refrains from diving in is Billy. Born deaf, despite his excellent lip reading skills he struggles to keep up when his family are in full flow, teasing and needling one another, sometimes with affection, sometimes with cruel acuity; rarely does anyone ever pause to make sure Billy isn’t being left behind.
Things change when Billy meets Sylvia. The daughter of deaf parents, she’s losing her hearing as a result of a genetic condition; she’s also teaching Billy to sign, something to which his father has always been resistant, and in doing so she opens up a new world to him. But, in an ironic twist, it’s a world with which Sylvia is increasingly starting to struggle; she finds the hierarchies and rivalries of the deaf community alienating, the insularity alarming.
There’s an overabundance of parallels at work here; some of Raine’s narrative devices that are just a little bit too pat, a little bit too mechanical. Both Billy’s parents write for a living, words are their business, and yet they fail to grasp Billy’s need for connection through language. This point is repeatedly underlined; Christopher, who steadfastly refuses to learn to sign, is even taking Chinese lessons. As the play progresses its subtly dwindles. While Billy becomes more confident, his brother Daniel (who just happens to be writing a thesis on language) is sinking into mental illness, his childhood stutter re-emerging, so as one brother finds his voice, the other loses his.
The performances show no such heavy-handedness. Jacob Casselden, a deaf actor, plays Billy with a calm, wry quality. Accustomed to being stuck on the sidelines, his character’s gradual emergence and growth is deftly handled. Playing opposite him, as Sylvia, Michelle Terry is (once again) controlled and compelling. Her character’s distress at the loss of her hearing is palpable and her response - wary, bemused, unsettled - to Billy’s feuding brood is convincing. She also gently modifies her voice as the play progresses to give a sense of her condition worsening.
Stanley Townsend is suitably larger than life as the booming, bearded Christopher and Kika Markham, Harry Treadaway and Pheobe Waller-Bridge are all on strong form as Beth, Daniel and Ruth respectively, though the two women’s roles are rather thin in comparison.
Mark Thompson’s simple set has a gauze screen that serves a dual purpose, dividing the space and allowing for the projection of surtitles. Most of the early scenes are conducted around the dining table but the piano, partially shielded from view, comes into its own at the end of the first act as Sylvia sits down to play. It’s a poignant moment, well executed, and subtler than some later scenes, beautifully illustrating that while Sylvia will always have the memory of music, Billy will not, something that causes them both disquiet.
The first half of Roger Michell’s production is crackling and energetic, full of familial one-upmanship and some inspired expletive-riddled dialogue (eating his wife’s seafood pasta is, according to Christopher, “like being fucked in the face by a crab”), but this momentum doesn’t quite carry through into the second half as events become more fragmented and unconvincing.
Yet despite this eventual falling off Raine’s play provides some real insight into the way that families communicate (or, rather, often fail to) and into just how painfully isolating it can be not to be able to hear in a world that makes few allowances for this fact.