Limits of Language and Listening
Presented as a comic exploration of a dysfunctional family whose deaf son is about to make some life-changing decisions, “Tribes,” by British playwright Nina Raine, has plenty to say on listening and language. Looking at the ways we communicate, think we communicate, or fail to communicate, “Tribes” sees it having much to do with the ways we listen, think we listen, or fail to listen. Listening without hearing, listening by looking, listening just to say what we were going to say anyway. Featuring six outstanding performances, “Tribes” certainly delivers quite a few big, theatrical moments. Yet the importance of its themes far outweigh its dramatic or comedic considerations, which come in a distant second once its delightfully dysfunctional family become surplus to thematic requirements.
Opening with, and often returning to, the family gathered around the dinner table, “Tribes” finds Christopher, the loud mouth, critical patriarch, jokingly lambasting his children who have all moved back home. He may claim he wants them to move back out, but Christopher loves an audience for his arrogance, an audience intellectually weaker than he is, and far less successful. As is often the way with adults living at home with their parents, daughter Ruth, with aspirations to be a pub opera singer, and Daniel, tortured by mental health issues and a thesis he can’t finish, revert to being ten years old. Something mother, Beth, duly enables, distracting herself from the marital breakdown detective novel she wants to write.
Feeling like an English, middle class version of Married With Children, or any of several other dysfunctional family sit coms, “Tribes” sees everyone delighting in raining on everyone else’s parade, with no one feeling understood despite the endless racket. What elevates “Tribes” beyond the usual family sketch is the presence of Billy. Deaf since birth, relying on lip reading for never having been taught sign language, Billy seems to share Christopher’s privileged notion that special privileges should not be accorded to those with handicaps, believing that identifying as deaf would be Billy’s path to perdition. But now Sylvia’s come into Billy’s life, a young woman going deaf who is finally teaching Billy sign language. Someone who just might throw a spanner in the judgmental family works, making them all feel good about feeling bad, whether or not she intends to.
With a gentle head nod towards Wittgenstein, language, or the multiplicity of languages, their texts and subtexts, are something Raine explores beautifully. As well a multiplicity of listenings, how we listen, of wanting to listen, and of not wanting to listen. Music, sign, poetry, Chinese, language of all kinds, and their absence, function to include, alienate, limit, free, and define us, making us belong in strange places and feel outside of familiar places where we should belong. Depending on what we do, don't, or think we hear.
If Raine’s exploration of how we endeavor to communicate proves to be “Tribes’” strength, it also proves to be something of a dramatic Achilles heel. While initially providing a rich vein of humour and dramatic context, the family ultimately becomes reduced to a mere device once they’ve served their thematic purpose. Which feels like a bit of a let down. With the entire first half, and immediately post interval, spent setting up the family’s dysfunctional dynamic, the manner in which they are unceremoniously dropped once Billy has had his say sees “Tribes” become an entirely different work altogether, breaking the spell it spent so long casting. Flipping, firstly, into a beautiful meditation on the experience of going deaf, it flips yet again to engage with a far less successful tale of a stammering, schizophrenic brother and the voices in his head. Family might reappear momentarily, but all their earlier concerns are essentially unresolved. Something not even a genuine, feel good, heartfelt hug can do enough to reclaim.
Director Oonagh Murphy negotiates the demands of Raine’s problematic script with great finesse, letting the obvious humour do its work unimpeded, whilst cleverly teasing out its thematic richness. Places where the script is less convincing - a kiss and its outcome it really doesn’t sell, an unsatisfactory ending lacking in impact or resolution - Murphy never allows to become defining. Instead, Murphy establishes a detailed visual vocabulary that brings it all together. Conan McIvor’s brilliant video design visually reinforces “Tribes” thematic complexities of languages and listening, played out over three rows of screens, richly informed by images, translations, and subtexts. Themes ably supported by Ivan Birthistle’s sound design, Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting design, and Conor Murphy’s set and costume designs, rounding out some excellent work by an excellent design team.
When it comes to cast, “Tribes” is blessed with an incredible ensemble. Nick Dunning’s Christopher, a man in love with his own voice, is brilliantly convincing. As is Fiona Bell as the well meaning, long suffering, eternally apologetic mother. Gráinne Keenan is unquestionably “Tribes” best kept secret, turning in a wonderfully detailed, comic performance. Indeed, under Murphy’s direction Dunning, Bell, and Keenan all seem to understand their characters comic strengths and dramatic limitations, delivering wonderfully balanced performances, both endlessly hilarious yet reined in sufficiently to acknowledge “Tribes” deeper concerns. Gavin Drea, given the thankless task of bringing the often dislikable and problematic Daniel to life, does a terrific job with a character that straddles the comic/serious divide more precariously than anyone else. Alex Nowak as Billy is terrific throughout, conveying beautifully a sense of tolerating being tolerated, of understanding why he’s not understood, until he can’t take it any longer. Clare Dunne as Sylvia, a woman coming to terms with going deaf, turns in a brilliant and beautifully nuanced performance. Whether charming a potentially hostile family, presenting sign language with the beauty of a Balinese dance, or pummeling herself with words and signs, needing to use two languages simultaneously to convey the sheer depth of her fear, rage and helplessness as her voice goes flat and her hearing fades, Dunne consistently delivers some of “Tribes” most riveting and compelling moments.
Though "Tribes" makes some compelling and powerful points, ultimately they come at a dramatic cost. Its unbalanced telling of three inter-connected stories sees all three feeling under-developed, leaving a dramatically unsatisfying hole at the heart of “Tribes.” While Sylvia’s denial mirror Billy’s youthful denial, or Billy assuming he understands what people mean when he lip reads, mirroring the attitude of his family towards him, such devices reiterate "Tribes'" dominance of themes over its characters or dramatic considerations. Even so, "Tribes" still delivers genuine moments of heartfelt humanity, and endless occasions to laugh out loud, courtesy of a superb cast playing one of the most lovably dislikable and recognisable families you ever likely to meet, before meeting your own at the next family dinner.
“Tribes” by Nina Raine, directed by Oonagh Murphy, runs at the Gate Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2017 until October 14th
For more information, visit the Gate Theatre or Dublin Theatre Festival 2017