Fortune Theatre, Dunedin

15/06/2013 - 13/07/2013

Production Details

Featuring: Paul Barrett, Cathy Downes, Sophie Hambleton, Nathan Mudge, Sarah Thomson, Ben Van Lier

“The best-written, best-plotted, deepest, most daring – and funniest – new play in recent years.” – The Wall Street Journal   

Launching the new TRUE GRIT series in Fortune Theatre’s Hutchinson Studio is Nina Raine’s award winning play Tribes.

Tribes received the Drama Desk Award for Best New Play, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Play and the Off Broadway Alliance Award for Best New Play. It also received an Olivier Award nomination for its 2010 London debut.

From rising British playwright Nina Raine, this contemporary new play is a savage and funny look at family dynamics and the challenges of communication. It revolves around Billy, a young deaf man caught between two worlds. Billy’s family is fiercely intelligent, idiosyncratic, and proudly unconventional. They are their own tiny empire where conversation is a no-holds-barred struggle for attention. Billy watches his family in silence. It is not until he meets Sylvia, a young woman on the brink of deafness, that he finally understands what it means to be understood.

“We are very excited to be staging such a gritty piece of contemporary theatre in the intimate environment that our Studio space offers. There are many layers to this play. There have been months of preparation for the actors– learning New Zealand Sign Language, involvement with the deaf community, learning to play the piano, writing a novel, writing a thesis…you name it, they’re doing it. Casting is essential to get right and in this instance it has been important to cast actors that are absolutely match-fit, and that can sensitively learn, as hearing actors, what it is to be deaf. They need to be totally believable as a family unit, and unafraid of the demands this marvellous story requires in their telling of it. Knowing I have found all this makes the journey incredibly exciting” says Director Lara Macgregor.

Brydee Jenkin Strang is coaching the actors in New Zealand Sign Language and you will be able to meet with her at the official signed performance on Sunday, 30 June at 4.00pm. Bookings are essential. 

Contains coarse language and adult content. Recommended 14+.

“This play…is one that constantly sounds the still, sad music of humanity.” – Daily Telegraph

Nina Raine received the 2006 London Evening Standard and the 2006 Critics’ Circle Awards for Most Promising Playwright. Her plays include Rabbit and The Drunks, and her directing credits include Shades and Behind the Image for the Royal Court Theatre, Unprotected at the Liverpool Everyman, Vermillion Dream at Salisbury Playhouse and Eskimo Sisters at Southwark. She has trained as an Assistant Director at the Royal Court under the Channel Four YRTDS scheme where she assisted the directors Dominic Cooke, Ian Rickson, Katie Mitchell, David Hare, James Kerr and Stephen Daldry.

15 June – 13 July
Fortune Theatre Studio, 231 Stuart Street, Dunedin
Tuesday, 6.00pm, Wednesday – Saturday, 7.30pm, Sunday, 4.00pm
(no show Monday) 
Gala (first 5 shows) $32, Adults $40, Senior Citizens $32, Members $30, Tertiary Students $20, High School Students $15, Group discount (10 +) $32
Fortune Theatre, 231 Stuart Street, Dunedin
Box Office 03 477 8323 or visit 
Contains coarse language and adult content. Recommended 14+. 
Approx. 2 hours (including interval)   

Lunchtime Bites / Thursday, 6 June – meet at 12.15pm in the Dunedin Public Library, ground floor. The cast will perform an excerpt from Tribes with an opportunity to win tickets. Reading will commence at 12.30pm followed by afternoon tea. This is a FREE event.
Opening Night / Saturday, 15 June 7.30pm, Fortune Theatre. 
Members’ Briefing / Sunday, 16 June – meet at the Fortune bar at 3.00pm and join Fortune Theatre Artistic Director Lara Macgregor for a lively informal chat about Tribes. 
Forum / Tuesday, 18 June  join the cast and crew for an open question and answer session following the 6.00pm show.
Fortune Sociable Club / Wednesday, 19 June meet in the bar at 6.30pm, with like-minded individuals and get connected.
Signed Performance / Sunday, 30 June – a special 4.00pm signed performance for hearing impaired patrons. Bookings essential.

Paul Barrett
Cathy Downes
Sophie Hambleton
Nathan Mudge
Sarah Thomson
Ben Van Lier

Set Designer:  Matt Best and Peter King
Set Build:  Peter King and Nathan Power
Lighting Designer:  Martyn Roberts
Sound Designer:  Arran Eley
Costume Designer:  Maryanne Wright-Smyth
Stage Manager:  Tim Nuttall
Properties Master:  Rebecca Tapp
Technical Co-ordinator:  Lindsay Gordon
NZSL Tutor/Deaf Advisor:  Brydee Jenkin Strang

Funny, daring, hopeful, insightful

Review by Terry MacTavish 17th Jun 2013

At school, in the fourth form, friend Jen’fer Esplin and I learned the alphabet of sign language so we could communicate in Assembly without the prefects catching us.  It was frustratingly slow, spelling each word, but thrilling being part of a tiny secret tribe.

After seeing the graceful interpreters for the gothic puppets of Hatched at the Fortune, I awoke to the sheer beauty of arm movements signing whole words or even concepts, and have been waiting for a play like Tribes ever since.  It has been worth the wait.

Lara Macgregor’s production of Nina Raine’s multi-award-winning work is as enlightening as it is enthralling.  This is marvellously challenging theatre which entertains with wicked dialogue delivered at breathless pace, while demanding empathy for Billy, the only deaf member of a hearing (and aggressively speaking) family.

The Studio is an excellent choice for this first of the Fortune’s ‘true grit’ selection.  Virtually seated in the family’s living room, we are also intensely aware of the other half of the angled audience. The set, designed by Peter King, is surprisingly airy and quite beautiful: one bare tree growing indoors, smooth white walls and floating platform encircling the round white table that, while hardly representing chivalric Camelot, is the centre of family life. 

The low stools around the table allow for swift moves for the actors and clear lines of sight for the spectators.  The captions that interpret sign language, and later teasingly reveal the inadequacy of words by telling us what the characters are really thinking, are projected clearly but unobtrusively onto the two walls.

Illumination appears to come from myriad recessed lights, blue gleaming from the ceiling, gold glowing from the walls, the subtle lustre proclaiming the deft touch of designer Martyn Roberts.  With such a play we will be more conscious than usual of the sound track, and this, by Arran Eley, enhances the production, from the lovely operatic music to the – I was about to write deafening – roar of surging sound that is the noise of the family arguing when Billy rips out his audio aids. 

The opening scene at family mealtime is directed with the breathtaking speed and excitement of the dinner party that begins Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, which amazed me at its premiere in London’s Royal Court, the theatre that has also mounted Raine’s plays.  Crackling dialogue exemplifies the brilliance and the cruelty of language as the family attack each other with accustomed ease.

Gradually we focus on Billy, sitting silent while the verbal vitriol swirls round him. When he asks what it was all about, he is brushed off.  But Billy has something of his own to communicate: he has met a girl, love at first sight, and she will be the catalyst to force the family to examine the way they have brought up their son.  The scene closes with a memorable Macgregor moment of extended stillness, earned by the preceding frenzied whirlwind of words and action.

Macgregor has wrought her actors into a tight team who succeed in giving the impression of having grown up together, of playing out these vicious scenes of stamping on each other’s corns on a regular basis, and their furious arguments build grippingly to exploding point, or, with the parents, to playful physical passion.

Paul Barrett and Catherine Downes make a simply terrific couple, squabbling luxuriously with each other, loving their deaf son but too wrapped up in their own agendas to see the harm they are doing him.  The reason they have denied him sign language is their reluctance for him to identify with a stigmatised ‘tribe’. The family is Jewish, another tribe, but this seems significant only in so far as they are alarmingly articulate.  And can make circumcision jokes. 

Barrett as Christopher, retired academic and writer, commands the stage, rolling out his hilariously foul insults with gusto, and our shocked laughter is a testament to his acting brilliance as much as to Raine’s pen.  I am glad that Macgregor has kept the accents pleasantly neutral, although the play is clearly set in England as shown by Christopher‘s appalling diatribes about his son’s ex-girlfriend from the disparaged North. 

Downes makes the absolute most of the more slender role of Beth, his gentler but still feisty wife who has writing ambitions of her own.  The audience relishes in particular her confidently explosive entrance in her underwear, battling with control freak Christopher over the kimono he insists she wear to meet the new girlfriend. 

We’ve seen these dysfunctional loving/hating families often enough, courtesy of Chekov, Coward, O’Neill, Albee, Osborne, et al; but nowadays the phenomenon of the crowded nest makes Tribes all the more relevant.  “Why am I surrounded by my family again? When are they going to fuck off?!” screams their affectionate father.  They form, of course, a tribe, with dad the silverback who suppresses his rebellious young, while still providing security, both financial and emotional.

Competing to win his approval, even while furiously resenting him, are drug-addled son Daniel, struggling with his thesis on conveying feelings through words, and daughter Ruth, an aspiring foreign-opera singer.  The protective, patronising affection they feel for the one family member who doesn’t put them down turns to jealousy when Billy finds love and a career.  Daniel and Ruth are brought to convincing life by Ben Van Lier and Sarah Thomson, who ably demonstrate the impassioned emotions and remarkable verbal dexterity required of them.

Billy is naturally the pivot.  Nathan Mudge makes him immensely appealing: it is easy to see why Billy has become the family pet.  His growing frustration with this role is clear; indeed Mudge brings truth to all the complex facets of Billy.  He employs the perfect intonation to suggest deafness while remaining intelligible for the demands of theatre, and his relationship with his first love is touching and tender.

His girlfriend Sylvia, born into a deaf family hence fluent in signing, slowly becoming deaf herself, is played with delicate assurance by Sophie Hambleton.  Her mixture of sweetness and spirit makes it credible Billy would change his life for her.  She signs with grace and efficiency, culminating in her wonderfully conflicted interpretation of Billy’s angry signing to his parents that he rejects them for her. 

No doubt the deaf community will identify with Billy, and rejoice in being given a voice, but Tribes will resonate for all who belong to groups outside the mainstream. My guest, who is German, says she experiences the same sense of isolation, and many of the queer community will feel themselves defined by that one fact, as Billy feels he is defined by his deafness.

Tribes is not without flaws –  there are so many issues raised in the first half it would be nigh impossible to resolve them all in the second – but it is a play that should be seen.  It is funny and daring and hopeful, and it offers new insights that might even lead us to make the world a better place.  Reviewers have been stimulated to profound and provocative cogitations (check out theatreview!).

I’ve rarely heard so much of the after-show babble revolve exclusively around the topics of the play (perhaps reinforced by the themed supper featuring dishes like ‘sticks and stones’).  But an old friend I see in the throng of theatre-goers is too moved to speak.  She simply lifts her hands and lets them fall helplessly, just the one, perfectly expressive, gesture.


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