Theatre Review: Tribes

Posted on: 27 October 2010 by Alexander Hay

A penetrating dissection of belonging, family and the limitations of communication is provided by Nina Raine in her riveting and moving new play Tribes (Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court Theatre), directed by Roger (Notting Hill) Michell.

TribesBilly’s fiercely intelligent and proudly unconventional family are their own tiny empire, with their own private language, jokes and rules. You can be as rude as you like, as possessive as you like, as critical as you like. Arguments are an expression of love, and after all you’d do anything for each other – wouldn’t you? But Billy who has been deaf since birth, is one of the few who actually listens. However when he meets Sylvia, who is losing her hearing and works for a charity for the deaf, he decides he finally wants to be heard – but can he get a word in edgeways?

This is a play which manages to be edgy, painful, witty and shocking in turn, tackling difficult questions about our attitudes to the deaf as well as those within the deaf community itself. At one point Billy asks his new-found girlfriend “Why did you stop going to your lip-reading classes?”, whereupon Sylvia replies “Because it was depressing. It was a self-help group full of miserable people losing a massive part of their lives and I was one of them, getting that deafness thrown in my face”.

Most importantly writer Nina Raine not only examines people’s deep-rooted desire to belong somewhere, but also language and communication itself, how we converse with others, yet are often not heard, speaking not being the same as saying anything, and how the deaf are expected to communicate on everyone else’s terms. “Language is radically indeterminate”, remarks Billy’s brother Daniel, who is writing a thesis on the limits of language. “Language doesn’t determine meaning. We have words but they are tokens, they are a pale photocopy of life”.

Michell’s production is perfectly judged, making clever use of subtitles, generally to convey the meaning of the sign language used, alongside a judicious use of silence. But above all it is the excellent performances of Jacob Casselden as Billy, the lip-reading outsider in a talkative, intellectually antagonistic family, Stanley Townsend as his forthright, academic father Christopher, Kika Markham as his mother Beth, a writer, Harry Treadaway as his twenty-something brother Daniel, Phoebe Waller-Bridge as his aspiring opera singer sister Ruth and Michelle Terry, particularly affecting, as Slyvia, who bring this work so vividly to life.

In short then this is a remarkably mature, wholly engaging play that provides a truly rewarding evening in the theatre.

By Laurence Green

Plays until November 13.
Box office: 020 7565 5000
Press: 020 7565 5050

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Alexander Hay

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