“How can you feel a feeling unless you have the word for it”
Tribes is the new play by Nina Raine, directed by Roger Michell, that is opening in the main auditorium at the Royal Court following on from the huge hit that was Clybourne Park, soon to transfer to the West End. Set in the present day, it centres on a rich bohemian family with all of its three children now returned to the fold as young adults searching for their place in life and straining to make their voices heard in the organised anarchy that is their family life. The action as such, focuses in on the one who struggles the most, Billy who is deaf as he meets a girl, Sylvia, who offers a potentially more understanding alternative in the deaf community, allowing him to assert himself and his identity for the first time, in opposition to his family’s creed.
In Billy and his interactions with his hearing family, Raine perfectly captures so many of the issues that deaf people face: the choice about how much to let the disability define your identity, in integrating with the deaf community and indeed the insularity of much of the activity of said group, the careful balancing act between intuition and guesswork when it comes to lip-reading and the trouble it can cause and crucially, the feeling of never wanting to be treated differently but constantly needing awareness of the situation to just get by. Raine also shows the diversity of experience that exists, in things like dealing with deafness from birth versus going deaf in later life, the bringing up of a deaf child in a hearing household and vice versa.
But this isn’t just a play about deafness, it is about the problems everyone experiences in communicating with others, especially in families. This particular family has all sorts of issues: the all-too-human flaws that we all have, mental illness, its uncompromising disdain of anything ‘other’ and its own set of socialisation rules which doesn’t seem to equip its children particularly well for the outside world, all mixed up with a fierce love.
As Billy, Jacob Casselden, a deaf actor, is brilliant: highly moving as the young man in search of identity in the whirl of unconventionality that is his family and unable to articulate his true feelings until an external factor is introduced. Michelle Terry is just exceptional as Sylvia, said factor or the woman opening Billy’s eyes to a whole new world outside of his domestic existence but also struggling to deal with losing her own hearing. She is a relaxed, natural signer and brought a beautiful wide-eyed honesty as the person caught between Billy’s desires and his family’s preconceptions. The scene where she calmly dissects the joke about the cement mixer is played to perfection and she’s also an excellent pianist by the look of things, if it wasn’t her playing Debussy’s Clair de Lune that we heard, she was miming the playing of it flawlessly!
Stanley Townsend as Billy’s father gives a huge performance which, much as Clybourne Park took the opportunity to verbalise the kind of racist jokes one wouldn’t necessarily expect to hear onstage, crashes through any kind of sensitivity towards the deaf in an often breath-taking manner: that said, we all know people who’ve said these things, although the gag about firing a gun into one’s eye is fantastically mistimed. He’s well partnered by Kika Markham’s compassionate mother, whose crumpled form as her son cuts the apron strings is most moving and together they bickered affectionately like a couple who’ve been together for years. Harry Treadaway’s older brother who is hearing voices is excellent, capturing the tenderness of the dependent relationship between the two boys well and effecting a startling physical transformation in the second half. And Phoebe Waller-Bridge does well with a disappointing underwritten part, her sister ultimately has little to add to the play.
It is staged beautifully by Mark Thompson: a very low stage allows for much of the action to played around the family dining table and the way in which the sign is interpreted and subtexts revealed is skilfully done but with a keen eye on the visual aesthetic too. Music is used throughout to punctuate the scenes, ranging from classical to Madness to the Jungle Book and Rick Fisher’s lighting completes a strong creative team.
This has proved a hard review to write. Much of the play’s content around Billy had such a direct personal resonance to my own experience as a deaf person growing up in a hearing household, a slave to dying batteries in my hearing aids, schooled in the mainstream rather than at specialist deaf institutions and ever-aware of the consonants I cannot hear that I need to enunciate at the end of words: some of the conversations around that family table could have been lifted verbatim from my own memories. So it proved to be an emotionally bruising night at the theatre for me, but one which was sympathetic and perfectly in tune with the issues it raised.
But I do believe there’s much here for everyone: Raine has a great ear for sharp dialogue, very witty but believable, and the dinner party that closes Act I is just a brilliant piece of drama. The second act doesn’t quite live up to it, feeling somewhat rushed in its hurry towards resolution, but the central message of the search for understanding of the self and the yearning to belong to something, whatever it is, is beautifully universal.