By Nina Raine
Directed by Ross Jolly
at Circa One, Wellington
From 6 Apr 2013 to 4 May 2013
Reviewed by Laurie Atkinson, 8 Apr 2013
originally published in The Dominion Post
At the start of Nina Raine's absorbing and moving play Tribes I thought I was watching an updated comedy about an eccentric, self-absorbed, foul-mouthed, argumentative bohemian family like the Bliss family in Noel Coward's Hay Fever, except Raine's family are given no surname and it is set in North London rather than Berkshire.
Christopher is a writer and retired academic, his wife Beth is a novelist, and their three children, all in their twenties, are still living at home. Daniel has completed a thesis on the relationship between language and meaning. One of his first pronouncements is ‘Language is worthless.' His sister Ruth is a would-be opera singer, singing in languages, which Daniel pointedly remarks, no one can understand.
The youngest member of this tribe is Billy who says little and seems to be largely ignored as the verbal missiles ricochet across the dining table. Billy is deaf which his family seem to disregard, unaware of his loneliness, and he survives with a hearing aid and being an expert lip-reader.
The outsider from another tribe who upsets the cosy imbalance of the family is Sylvia whom Billy has fallen in love with. She is the daughter of deaf parents and she herself is going deaf. We learn from her about the hierarchies of the deaf: to be born deaf is ‘superior' to be slowly losing one's hearing. Then Billy strikes out on his own, determined to use only sign language, much to his father's disgust who always wanted Billy to be part of the mainstream.
Though Tribes may appear contrived, what with Daniel's interest in language and the recurrence of his mental and physical problems which dovetail a little too neatly with the play's themes about isolation, empathy, and the ways language in all its forms can impede communication, the play still holds the audience in an iron grip.
It is finely acted by Jeffrey Thomas as the determinedly non-PC father, Emma Kinane as his more reasonable if argumentative wife, Jessica Robinson as the daughter Ruth, and Nathan Meister in the ‘showier' role of Daniel which he balances brilliantly on the fine edge between comedy and tragedy.
In the key roles of Billy and Sylvia, Paul Waggott and Erin Banks have never been better even though at times they were, ironically, a little too quietly spoken. Waggott's transition from isolated young man to a man fired to take a stand to confused adult is never forced and is always perfectly tuned. Banks matches him with a touching performance and both make their use of sign language speak volumes.
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