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Print Version
Photo by Stephen A'Court
Photo by Stephen A'Court
By Nina Raine
Directed by Ross Jolly

at Circa One, Wellington
From 6 Apr 2013 to 4 May 2013

Reviewed by John Smythe, 8 Apr 2013

The title is derived from the idea that we all live in tribes of a kind. The family we are born into is one, as we grow we tend to join others and life is about learning to survive within and through them.

But what Tribes is really about is language, finding a voice and telling stories, which is key to any tribe's identity. And of course any individual trapped in a tribe wants to distinguish themselves either according to tribal rules and values or in opposition to them.

[Warning: explicit language may offend.]

The play opens with a family dinner at which the arrogantly opinionated and compulsively abusive father (Christopher, an academic and writer) calls his daughter's ex-boyfriend a potato-nosed cunt and derides his writing. The daughter (Ruth) says her brother (Daniel) has an epic amount of porn stashed in the other brother (Billy)'s room, and Daniel describes something-or-other as like “one long blow job.”

English playwright Nina Raine reveals in a profile by Lucy Sissman that when her first play, Rabbit, went to America, she accommodated a New York actress's discomfort at having to say “cunt” word by replacing two of its three occurrences with something less potent. “By the time I was back working on Tribes,” she says, “I thought, ‘Fuck these Americans,' and put cunt in the third line.” [Language warning ends.] 

So, good-o, she pops a private pimple there. But while aggressively sexual banter may have been valid in her portrait of competitive, self-obsessed professionals in their late twenties (Rabbit), between a father and his young adult children it implies something quite different. And despite Christopher's going on to ‘entertain' them by imagining sex with a particular woman he delights in denigrating as “like sticking your cock into a concrete mixer”, the dynamic this puerility sets up has nothing to do with the play that follows. It's just a soon discarded flavour agent in Raine's demonstration of how Christopher controls and dominates his ‘tribe'.

His derogatory put-downs of anyone outside the family – and anyone within it who attempts to distinguish themselves artistically, creatively or academically – has created a co-dependent family who cannot function outside the ‘tribe'.

Both Ruth, who wants to be an opera singer, and Dan, who is working on a thesis about language, smokes “skunk” and is tormented by voices inside his head, are miserably self-obsessed and – surprise, surprise – are suffering from failed relationships. Only their mother, Beth, ridiculed by all for attempting to be a fiction writer herself, seems to cruise along happily enough in this toxic environment.

These parents and siblings are the context for the play's true focus, Billy, who is deaf and therefore disenfranchised from joining in the savage banter that binds the others like a shared addiction. This is the same device Raine used in Rabbit: the outsider with whom we readily relate because everyone else is so awful. This time round I find it a cheap and nasty device more suited to political propaganda than a play about the intricacies of human relationships.

At one point Dan mentions they are a Jewish family which surprises me as there is no such dynamic in this Ross Jolly-directed Circa production. I'm suddenly aware that what has come across as offensively prurient could well be “wickedly funny” (cf: Philip Roth, Howard Jacobson, et al), as characterised in reviews of last year's Silo production; the blistering cut and thrust of provocative argument for its own sake, dedicated to challenging the intellect rather than demeaning all and sundry in order to control them and maintain a false sense of supremacy.

I suppose Raine expects us to take ‘the tribes of Israel', the Jewish diaspora, the tribal extremities of Zionism and the entire history of Jewish alienation as a thematic given without stitching it into her text as such. Or maybe her point is that this family has assimilated into English culture, or thinks they have, congruent with their belief they've done the right thing by giving Billy hearing aids, teaching him to talk and leaving him to lip-read but denying him access to sign language and the deaf community, so that he can just be one of the family.

When Billy meets Sylvia – the daughter of deaf parents and therefore fluent in sign language, and now going deaf herself – the rest of the family feel threatened, as if the pet poodle they like to cuddle while fighting with each other was preferring to spend time with some bitch down the road.

This is the core of the play and once it gets on with itself, the production hums. There are times when it takes on something of a theatre-in-education tone, but I don't mind that since it is much more enlightening and delivers more value than much of the preceding action.

The London premiere at the Royal Court was directed by Roger Michell, whose minimalist aesthetic Raine described as “Beautiful, but very controlled, very perfectionist.” By contrast the New York production, directed by David Cromer at Barrow Street, was more anarchic. “He'll throw the cards up in the air and see how they come down,” Raine told Lucy Sissman, and there the in-the-round set was full of naturalistic clutter.

John Hodgkins' set at Circa looks symmetrical, up-market, un-lived-in and dedicated to framing the large cinema screen that carries Johann Nortje's geometric evocations of suburbia, indications of the time of day, and subtitles which are variously used to translate sign language and tell us what characters are really thinking when unaccustomed politeness to an outsider requires them to curtail their usual bluntness.

Maybe Raine is easily bored or insecure about the strength of her central premise but the suddenly introduced subtitled subtext device seems try-hard to me and doomed not to get the laughs it expects when the audience is subjectively empathising – which must surely be the major objective – with Billy and Sylvia.

Eschewing a family name and listing characters in the programme as Billy's father /mother /brother /sister indicates they are relative ciphers and Jeffrey Thomas (Christopher), Emma Kinane (Beth), Nathan Meister (Daniel) and Jessica Robinson (Ruth) do all they can to make them complete and credible people.

That Christopher is, apparently, based on Raine's own father suggests another private and unresolved issue is embedded here, which may explain why we never get to know why he behaves as he does. What his insistence on Beth wearing a kimono signifies, in tribal terms, remains a mystery to me. And is it significant that Beth irons black sheets with a cold cordless iron significant or is that just a design short-cut like the place behind the bookshelves from which kitchen items are inexplicably plucked?

While Ruth languishes in a psycho-emotional wilderness only she could jolt herself out of, Dan – whose clandestine smoking is surely supposed to be of joints rather than tailor-made cigarettes – descends into what clinicians may call ‘hysterical inarticulateness': Raine's rather ham-fisted counterpoint to Billy's linguistic liberation.

Although the actors find moment-by-moment truth in playing out their roles, something is missing in the hearing characters' family dynamic: while their individual isolation becomes clear, their co-dependence is not apparent. I wonder if an opportunity has been missed to place less emphasis on the dialogue and more on exploring non-verbal manifestations of character and their states of being: a dimension I'd have thought was very relevant since this is how Billy and Sylvia read them.

Paul Waggott draws us into Billy's world masterfully, through stillness and silence. It becomes very clear that despite their persistent mouthing off, he sees and understands more than the others do. Waggott chooses not to fully embrace the atonal voice of a deaf person (as exemplified in this fascinating YouTube clip involving the couple who provided Raine with much of her research and the deaf actor who originated the role of Billy). There is riveting watching to be had, however, in his playing of Billy's evolving relationship with Sylvia, his ‘born again' fervour as a new initiate of the deaf tribe, his insistence that his family learn his tribe's language and his questionable actions concerning the job he gets lip-reading CCTV footage for the police. The question the play raises about when creativity is good and when it is not is a good one.

Sylvia's ‘journey' into deafness and away from the hierarchical ‘deaf community' while coping with Billy's family, and Billy himself, is equally rich in content and structure, and Erin Banks embodies the role brilliantly. She and Waggott have met the challenge of learning to sign so well, it is easy to take it for granted.

The scene where Billy signs his ultimatum to his family and Sylvia translates as his ‘voice' while having her own responses to what is happening is wonderfully complex and powerful: the most memorable scene for me. And earlier (to close the first act) her piano playing has unexpectedly touched us deeply by way of proving the efficacy of non-verbal communication.

So despite the issues I have with aspects of the script and this production, there is plenty of substance and some strong performance elements to engage with in Tribes.

An afterthought: It occurs to me that Billy's situation has parallels with children from minority cultures who have been adopted into mainstream families and assimilated in the name of ensuring they don't feel different. Invariably there comes a time when identity crisis strikes and people on all sides feel betrayed. The answer is not in tribal exclusivity, or xenophobia, but in embracing diversity and being inclusive. So it frustrates me that Nina Raine's Tribes offers no insight into that universal truth and fails to resonate in any way on that level.  
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 Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);