RIVETING, HEART-WRENCHING THEATRE
Written by Nina Raine
Directed by Shane Bosher
at Maidment, Auckland
From 8 Jun 2012 to 30 Jun 2012
Reviewed by Lexie Matheson, 11 Jun 2012
Tribes is a play about tribes. That may seem trite but in a way all life is about tribes.
In his hierarchy of all human needs Maslow places ‘Love/Belonging' – being part of a group or tribe – third above our Physiological and Safety needs. Actors know about tribes because to be a member of the theatre profession is to belong to one of the oldest and most exclusive tribes in the world.
One of the key features that set one tribe apart from another is the means by which they communicate. To gain entry to my tribe, for example, you must learn to say “love you most no backs forever” to another tribe member who must, in turn, try to interrupt you before you get to the end of the sentence by saying “blaaaah”. If you are not interrupted you become the leader. (More detail below)*
There is no point to this ritual beyond having an excuse to tell another tribe member that they are loved but saying it so rapidly that it becomes unintelligible. An outsider – and for tribes there must always be outsiders – would think we were nuts. They'd properly be right.
Nina Raine's dazzling play Tribes has a tribe, an outsider, rituals, a unifying idiom and plenty of attitude. It's a play about language, about communication, about miscommunication and what happens when the means by which we communicate is turned into a political tool. As a partially deaf person I appreciate the content very much indeed.
The Maidment's expansive stage, beautifully lit (design by Vera Thomas), has a naturalistic, contemporary look (design by John Verryt). There are four principal acting areas, steps to an effective upstage raised entrance/exit, a pleasantly presented domestic dining area complete with overflowing bookcase and five mismatched chairs, an open space Downstage and to the left a 1950s style comfy chair with cushions in bright-sounding colours, a piano and a standard lamp. The whole has a yummy, lived-in sense of middle class comfort and style.
As I sit in the auditorium before the show the gentle cackle and crackle of conversation filters through from the foyer to toy with my time-damaged hearing. Behind me snippets of talk, the semi-audible detritus of communication, peppers the air – “how was it for you?”, “it's not forever”, “young guy, Maori guy”, “but of course I could be wrong” – and, for a moment, life seems to be broken into barely intelligible, bite-sized aural chunks.
From time to time Sean Lynch's interesting soundscape breaks through the witter and I wonder about the convention of always having preshow music. Why do we do it, when did it start and how much do the hearing-impaired miss without knowing they've missed anything?
The play literally bursts onto the stage with posh English voices raised in quarrel and Nina Raine's complete – and disputatious – tribe arrives.
Patriarch Christopher (Michael Hurst), apparently based on Raine's own father, is a potty-mouthed, opinionated, North London egotist. He's also an academic, a writer, seemingly bitter, a sexist and – did I say – linguistically vulgar.
His wife Beth (Catherine Wilkin) is a writer – marriage breakdown detective novels - who has yet to publish or complete anything really. She's somewhat of a cipher and a bridge between Christopher and Daniel, the ne'er-do-well, dope-smoking son (Emmett Skilton).
Daughter Ruth (Fern Sutherland) is a vibrant, self obsessed singer at the commencement of what she clearly sees to be a highly successful career. No-one else seems to agree with her.
The quartet parry and thrust with a quippy series of verbal bon mots that straight away notify us that Raine can write damn good dialogue. There are delectable modern moments around bringing a laptop to the dining table and many of the ripostes are hatefully funny. Raine uses sexual language to great effect and, unlike some, I find this and Christopher's vulgarity largely innocuous and completely apt. It does get pretty hot in the verbal kitchen at times though, so be warned!
These opening scenes, while tart and amusing, seemed at times somewhat forced and the actors a tad tense. It's a minor quibble and, with growing confidence, I'm certain this will disappear and the racy pace become less laboured.
Oh, I almost forgot, there is another member of the tribe. His name is Billy (Leon Wadham) and he is profoundly deaf.
It seems appropriate that I should have ignored him up to this point because his family often do as well. This is clearly intentional as Raine's play pivots on the politicising of deafness, the contemporary debate around deaf parents who pray their children will also be deaf, how deaf children of hearing parents are taught to communicate and the destructive hierarchies that exist within the deaf community.
Here we have Billy, deaf since birth, taught by his parents to lip-read but not sign. Enter Billy's romantic interest Sylvia (Jodie Hillock), born to deaf parents, taught to sign from birth but equally able to speak fluently but who is now slowly losing her own hearing.
Raine's didactic pragmatism helps the to audience engage empathically with each character; to recognise both the agony and the irony of the love they have for each other and the crazed world they inhabit. It's Romeo and Juliet all over again and something has to give.
Despite some minor comic miscommunication, due largely to the curmudgeonly Christopher's cantankerous perversity, all seems to be going swimmingly in Billy and Sylvia world by the half-way mark. Only Daniel seems disturbed by what is happening and his sleep is increasingly disrupted by his sleep-murdering ‘voices'.
Part one ends with some mouth-watering and evocative piano playing by Ruth.
Reflecting during the interval I find myself strangely moved by what I've seen and experienced. The metaphor of the five mismatched chairs is a powerful reminder that individuality still exists within tribes and, while other visual messages seem a tad laboured, I look forward to seeing whether these will, in the end, balance themselves out. I hope so because overall, the charm of the work and the commitment of the cast outweighs any criticism.
Initially I find the surtitles unnecessary but grow to appreciate them and the clever way they are used as just another disruption to the normality of linguistic communication.
Part two begins with the same technical brilliance as is evident throughout.
The text, so very English in its Alf Garnett-like anger and self-conscious chauvinism, drives us unashamedly deep into the heart of the tribe's ritualistic dysfunction. The crisis that is at the nub of the play – Billy's political ‘coming out' – is ultimately that which divides the entire deaf community into a brace of disparate and incompatible sub-tribes and never the twain shall meet.
Something has to give, and it does. Tribalism wins out. As the text gets richer and the crises more profound, the actors truly come into their own. This is not easy work but they're all up for it.
Billy and Sylvia each sign with skill, passion and enthusiasm while never losing their connection to the spoken text and the action. Wadham and Hillock are excellent throughout and quite superb in all the scenes that really matter. Hillock's progression into the cacophony that is advancing deafness is sublimely and subtly achieved.
Skilton starts slowly but is also there when it matters. The horrific return of Daniel's stammer and the struggle he has to be understood is painful to watch – and listen to – but splendidly acted. The fact that his ever-unfinished thesis reminds us in advance that “language doesn't determine meaning” seems the ultimate irony for a man who becomes so totally devoid of speech.
Fern Sutherland (Ruth) is excellent too, as the wannabe but unsuccessful opera singer. She's empathic, relaxed and believable throughout.
Director Shane Bosher wrings every ounce of passion from his committed cast, and moves actors around the space shrewdly and with intelligent authority. Not once does he let his audience off the hook and we love him for it.
The metaphors etched into Raine's beautifully crafted script, the ironies, the juxtaposed ideas and the courage of all the participants to take on a work of this magnitude and to turn it into a simple story – about love, family, loyalty to the tribe and finding one's own way – is more than admirable.
After two hours and twenty minutes of riveting, heart-wrenching theatre it seems that the final moment is there and gone almost too quickly. To my taste the ending, while beautiful, seems a trifle rushed and I selfishly wishs to enjoy it for more than a moment longer.
Tribes received a well-earned standing ovation on opening night and as it learns to tune into its audience, to feed off this engagement and to relax, it will improve even further.
In Elizabethan times diarists tell us that audiences went to the theatre to ‘listen to', rather than to see, a play. We might well revisit that tradition with Tribes. While it's certainly worth a look, it's even more worth a listen.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
*A challenger, believing they have won, must say “gotcha” after which the dialogue goes like this:
Me: Did too!
Me: Yes I did!
Finn: As the maker of the game I say you didn't.
Me: As the maker of the maker of the game I say I did.
Finn: As the combiner of the two souls of the maker of the game I say you didn't.
Me: Can't beat that. OK, you win.
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See also reviews by:
Paul Simei-Barton (New Zealand Herald);
James Wenley (Theatre Scenes - Auckland Theatre Blog);