Nina Raine‘s blistering, hysterical, furious, heartbreaking Tribes is built on a premise that’s instantly recognisable to theatre-goers: bringing that special someone home to meet the family. It is a play which takes is title deadly seriously. A family is a tribe, after all, with its own customs, culture, and – crucially for this play – way of communicating.
Every family has its own in-jokes, shorthand, nicknames, and so on, and the genius of Raine’s play is how easily this can lead to misunderstanding.
At first glance, this is a typically dysfunctional middle-class family, comfortable in its ways, and as the curtain rises, the set is a dinner table (scene of so much drama in both the play and real life). Christopher is a bullying, hectoring father, full of snide and sarcastic comments, mostly at the expense of his wife, Beth, and two of his three grown children, Ruth and Daniel. Beth has ambitions to be a novelist, but can’t seem to decide what sort of book she’ll write. Ruth is a self-proclaimed opera singer of dubious talent, and Daniel is a would-be academic writing a thesis on the limits of language that sounds like warmed-over Lacan or Derrida. They all slag each other mercilessly, not without love.
There is a fifth character, Billy, who initially says little. He is deaf, and he is beloved and coddled by the others. The play’s dramatic narrative is set in motion when Billy brings home a girl, Sylvia, and what starts out as a dinner party comedy of manners soon becomes a very serious, tragic something else altogether.
Tribes is a play about hearing but not listening, talking but not saying what you mean, and all the misunderstandings that families and lovers have to deal with. In the current production at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, director Oonagh Murphy has found ingenious ways to explore these ideas, using set and sound design to maximum effect. When a character listens to music on their headphones, the music is blasted through the theatre’s speakers. When one person says something and means another, the subtext is displayed on monitors above the actors.
If all this sounds rather precious, it isn’t. This is a fast-paced, whip-smart production, and the actors know when to pause just long enough to let a line land properly and get a laugh. And there are many laughs: Tribes is a funny play. There is a sense of sadness too, though, and without wishing to spoil anything, there is a character (suffering a mental illness) who provides a tragic component that elevates the piece beyond what might have been a self-satisified ‘issue’ play.
Tribes is a play which challenges society’s smug, supposed tolerance of difference, while also highlighting prejudice within the deaf community (those born deaf are somehow ‘better’ than those going deaf).
The Gate’s superb production features an ensemble of actors working at the top of their game. As the family patriarch, Nick Dunning is a caustic, whining, gloriously politically incorrect windbag. Fiona Bell‘s Beth is equally narcissistic, craving attention from her husband and children. Gavin Drea as Daniel is all bluster and sarcasm hiding a fragile insecurity. Gráinne Keenan‘s Ruth is perpetually on the verge of tears and desperately seeking the approval of her family.
And then there is the play’s central couple, Billy and Sylvia. Alex Nowak is a deaf actor and advocate for the deaf community in the U.K. He brings both a sense of vulnerability and righteous anger to Billy, and in a quiet way (no pun) he commands the stage. As Sylvia, whose arrival upsets the comfortable illusion that the family has set for itself, Clare Dunne is both powerful and timid (Sylvia is going deaf, and Dunne captures the frightening sense of losing a part of one’s identity).
Tribes is running at the Gate until November 11th and it is unmissable.