Nina Raine’s West End hit Tribes is a spectacularly dark exploration of family dynamics and relationships.
Christopher (Sean O’Shea), the intellectually superior patriarch, is married to Beth (Genevieve Lemon) who’s just as switched-on as her husband, but much more diplomatic. Eldest of their children is Daniel (Garth Holcombe), who’s dealing with a tough breakup, and then there’s Ruth (Amber McMahon), a wannabe opera singer without much drive. Rounding out the tribe is Billy (Luke Watts). He’s the anomaly – born deaf, he’s been brought up to speak and lip read perfectly, to communicate without the use of sign language. His parents place great value on language and words, and vehemently believed Billy’s deafness would define him. However, despite their attempts at normalcy, there’s a wall separating Billy from his family.
This picture is beautifully, painfully painted in the opening scene with the whole family sitting around the dinner table. “It’s like being fucked in the face by a crab,” Christopher says of his wife’s cooking, and off they go. Expletives are hurled around, arguments flare, food is thrown, and Billy sits silently down the end, only speaking to ask what everyone is saying. He’s shrugged off with feeble and flippant remarks, and the mood is set.
Enter Sylvia (Ana Maria Belo), Billy’s first girlfriend. Sylvia was born into a deaf family, and is gradually losing her own hearing. She’s heavily involved in the deaf community, and much to the horror of his family awakens in Billy a desire to seek a deeper understanding of his disability.
It’s a tough script with some difficult characters, but Director Susanna Dowling and her team deliver. O’Shea is stunningly self-righteous as Christopher. He handles Raine’s complex text with ease, and simply oozes disdain. Holcombe does well with a tough character, and gives a nuanced, detailed performance.
Most affecting, however, is Belo. Her own life experience has given her performance an incredible depth of truth and emotion. Whether Sylvia is verbally sparring with Christopher, or trying to articulate what it’s like to go deaf, Belo is mesmerising.
Raine’s original script is quintessentially British, and whilst it is understandable Dowling has localised it and inserted Australian-isms, the play seems to have lost that very distinctive English sensibility. This is a family who reads The Guardian every morning, whose house is covered floor to ceiling in books and manuscripts, and whose rooms are constantly filled with the blaring noise of BBC Radio 2. It felt a bit sparse, and knowing the play intimately in its original form, I believe it’s lost a little something in the conversion.
However, at its core the play is about a highly dysfunctional family who has their foundations shaken and their core values questioned. It’s an incredibly well-observed critique of modern family life, and an eloquent exploration of a prejudice that perhaps often goes unobserved. At some point or other, all of us have experienced a longing to find one’s place in one’s tribe, and a yearning to be accepted. We connect on this level not just with Billy, but with each of the characters, as they navigate their relationships and forge their way in the world. Tribes is a vibrant, thought-provoking piece of theatre, and a welcome addition to the Ensemble Theatre’s season this year.
Alana Kaye – Theatre Now
26 May – 2 Jul 2016
By Nina Raine
NOMINATED FOR 14 INTERNATIONAL THEATRE AWARDS
Meet Billy: he was born deaf, but has grown up lip-reading in the midst of his fiercely intelligent and unconventional family. Meet Sylvia: she was born to deaf parents and is gradually losing her own hearing. As Sylvia teaches Billy sign language, their worlds begin to align just as Billy’s family grapple with his new-found independence.
A runaway hit in London and off-Broadway, TRIBES delves into our universal desire to belong and to be heard with startling humour and biting accuracy.
“Raine’s tribal instinct breaks down the language barriers. It’s the best-written, best plotted, deepest, most daring—and funniest—new play in recent years.”
The Wall Street Journal
“Tribes forces us to hear with our eyes as well.”
The New York Times
2012 DRAMA DESK AWARD FOR OUTSTANDING PLAY
2012 NEW YORK DRAMA CRITICS’ CIRCLE AWARD
2012 OFF-BROADWAY ALLIANCE AWARD FOR BEST PLAY
NOMINATED FOR THE OLIVIER AND EVENING STANDARD AWARDS FOR BEST NEW PLAY
Venue: Ensemble Theatre
Theatre Company: Ensemble Theatre
Performances Dates, Times & Tickets
26 May – 2 Jul 2016
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Duration:APPROX 2 HRS 10 MINS (INCLUDING INTERVAL)
Director: Susanna Dowling
Cast: Ana Maria Belo, Garth Holcombe, Genevieve Lemon ,Amber McMahon ,Sean O’shea, Luke Watts
Assistant Director: Janine Watson
Designer: Rita Carmody
Lighting Designer: Benjamin Brockman
Sound Designer: Jeremy Silver
A/v Designer: Tim Hope
Wardrobe: Alana Canceri