Assistant Director Monique's second rehearsal room blog entry … Read more
Billy’s fiercely intelligent and proudly unconventional family are their own tiny empire, with their own private language, jokes and rules. You can be as rude as you like, as possessive as you like, as critical as you like. Arguments are an expression of love. After all, you’d do anything for each other – wouldn’t you? But Billy, who is deaf, is one of the few who actually listens. Meeting Sylvia makes him finally want to be heard; can he get a word in edgeways?
Nina Raine’s second play is a fascinating dissection of belonging, family and the limitations of communication. She won the Evening Standard Award and Critics Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright for her debut play Rabbit in 2006 and is also a director, recently directing Alia Bano’s Shades at the Royal Court. Roger Michell’s theatre directing credits include My Night with Reg (Royal Court), Rope, Female of the Species and Blue/Orange; his film credits include Venus, Enduring Love and Notting Hill.
For information on facilities for Deaf and Hearing Impaired People please click here to go to our access pages. Please note that the seats with clear views of the captions and BSL signers, and clear reception of the Vocaleyes audio descriptions, are held offsale and can only be booked directly with the Box Office on 020 7565 5000 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Age guidance 14+
Running time 2hrs 5mins incl. one interval
£10 Mondays sponsored by French Wines
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Dates in October
|Thu 14 Oct 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Fri 15 Oct 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Sat 16 Oct 2010||7:30pm||Captioned Performance||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12. For captioned seats call 020 7565 5000 or email email@example.com|
|Mon 18 Oct 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£10|
|Tue 19 Oct 2010||7:00pm||Captioned Performance||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12. For captioned seats call 020 7565 5000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org|
|Wed 20 Oct 2010||7:00pm||Press Night||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Thu 21 Oct 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Fri 22 Oct 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Sat 23 Oct 2010||3:30pm||Saturday Matinees||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Sat 23 Oct 2010||7:30pm||BSL Interpreted Performance||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12. For BSL seats call 020 7565 5000 or email email@example.com|
|Mon 25 Oct 2010||7:30pm||BSL Interpreted Performance||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£10. For BSL seats call 020 7565 5000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org|
|Tue 26 Oct 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Wed 27 Oct 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Thu 28 Oct 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Fri 29 Oct 2010||7:30pm||Captioned Performance||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12. For captioned seats call 020 7565 5000 or email email@example.com|
|Sat 30 Oct 2010||3:30pm||Saturday Matinees||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Sat 30 Oct 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
Dates in November
|Mon 1 Nov 2010||7:30pm||Captioned Performance||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£10. For captioned seats call 020 7565 5000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org|
|Tue 2 Nov 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Wed 3 Nov 2010||7:30pm||Captioned Performance, Post-Show Talk||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12. For captioned seats call 020 7565 5000 or email email@example.com|
|Thu 4 Nov 2010||3:30pm||Mid-Week Matinee||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Thu 4 Nov 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Fri 5 Nov 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Sat 6 Nov 2010||3:30pm||Audio Described Performance, Saturday Matinees||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12. For described seats call 020 7565 5000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org|
|Sat 6 Nov 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Mon 8 Nov 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£10|
|Tue 9 Nov 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Wed 10 Nov 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Thu 11 Nov 2010||3:30pm||BSL Interpreted Performance, Mid-Week Matinee||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12. For BSL seats call 020 7565 5000 or email email@example.com|
|Thu 11 Nov 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Fri 12 Nov 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
|Sat 13 Nov 2010||3:30pm||Captioned Performance, Saturday Matinees||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12. For captioned seats call 020 7565 5000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org|
|Sat 13 Nov 2010||7:30pm||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs||£25, £18, £12|
Sold out Performances
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- Access £12 (plus a companion at the same rate).
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Please note that the seats with clear views of the StageText captions and BSL signers, and clear reception of the Vocaleyes audio descriptions, are held offsale and can only be booked directly with the Box Office on 020 7565 5000 or email@example.com.
5 stars Mark Shenton, Sunday Express, Sunday 31 October 2010
A GOOD play lets you see the world through different eyes but the quietly devastating Tribes, which revolves around a young deaf man’s place in his family, does even more: it makes you hear the world differently.
As Billy, beautifully played by Jacob Casselden, who is himself deaf, embarks on a relationship with a woman who is slowly losing her hearing, he re-examines exactly where he fits in both inside his family and outside it and the play constantly makes you examine your own position on just what communication means. Playwright Nina Raine manages, meanwhile, to communicate her message both with the standard tools of speech but also the visual one of sign language.
Roger Michell’s production, alive to every shifting and uncomfortable nuance, supplies yet another form of non-verbal communication in the eloquent body language of the actors. The outstanding Michelle Terry as Billy’s girlfriend, Stanley Townsend and Kika Markham as his parents and Harry Treadaway and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as his siblings join Casselden in giving the play a piercing commitment and intensity. 4 stars Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph, Friday 21 October 2010
The Royal Court is on an amazing roll, and has come up trumps yet again with Nina Raine’s Tribes.
At once funny and piercingly painful, the play’s central subject is deafness. But to restrict it to a ghetto of “disability theatre” would be gravely to undervalue its scope. It is also a drama about educated, middle-class family life, and the way those who can hear so often prove to be deaf to the needs of others.
The family at the centre of the play are the sort of people who go to the Royal Court – educated, literate, opinionated. We first encounter them at the dinner table where everyone sounds forth on their own pet hobby horses while sharply, often cruelly, cutting each other down to size. They would doubtless see this as an expression of love and openness.
The father is an academic and critic, the mother is writing a novel, and their three children, none of whom has flown the nest, as is the way these days, are in their twenties. Daniel is struggling with both a thesis about the limitations of language and skunk-induced aural hallucinations; Ruth is a wannabe opera singer; and then there is Billy, the youngest child, who is profoundly deaf, mostly silent, and constantly trying to keep up with what is being said through a mixture of lip-reading and direct questions.
The family try to treat him normally but he is largely excluded from their noisy discourse. And then he meets a girl, the daughter of deaf parents who is going deaf herself, and falls in love for the first time. He learns sign language, gets a job, and to their great grief, begins to detach himself from his family as he discovers a new sense of community among the deaf.
Raine, the daughter of the poet and critic Craig Raine (who might not be entirely delighted by his daughter’s portrait of the father in the play) writes with a marvellous mixture of wit and empathy. And in Roger Michell’s beautifully judged, superbly acted production, you come to know all the characters in depth. There are also mesmerising passages involving signing, with the words, so eloquently expressed by gesture, also appearing as surtitles, which lend the play a haunting, poetic quality amid the noisy chatter. And though the piece becomes increasingly bleak, it ends with a glimmer of hope.
Jacob Casselden, who is deaf himself, is the still centre of the family storm as Billy, and the sense of wonder with which he falls in love and discovers a new confidence is as moving as anything I have seen in the theatre this year. Michelle Terry is equally beguiling as his girlfriend, especially touching as she describes the frustration and fear of her own worsening deafness. And there is outstanding support from Stanley Townsend as the booming, disputatious father, Kika Markham as the loving, grief-stricken mother and Harry Treadaway and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Billy’s hearing siblings, both afflicted by problems and insecurities of their own.
Though this is a play about deafness, it is one that constantly sounds the still, sad music of humanity.
4 stars Tim Auld, Sunday Telegraph, October 24, 2010
Tribes could be an Aga Saga or the play that that every aspiring middle-class playwright feels the need to write about a childhood in Broken-Hertfordshire. there’s a downtrodden mother and an overbearing father whose twenty-something children are still at home, in thrall to his expectations.
But Nina Raine – daughter of the poet Craig – transforms the cliché. The youngest son (deaf actor Jacob Casselden) is profoundly deaf, and by placing him at the heart of a household which defines itself by its ironic squabbling she creates something quite extraordinary.
Directed by Roger Michell, it’s a moving unpredictable and defiantly entertaining dissection of what it is to grow up or go deaf in Britain today, and should be another Royal Court hit.
4 stars Sarah Hemming, Financial Times, October 23, 2010
The Royal Court has become the theatre to go to if you want to be made to think – even to the point of discomfort. Its latest staging, Nina Raine’s riveting and original new play, tackles deafness, posing prickly questions about attitudes towards and within the deaf community, and branches out to consider hearing and being heard more generally. And, as its title suggests, it examines people’s deep-rooted desire to belong somewhere.
The tribe in question is the family unit. Billy (Jacob Casselden), deaf since birth, lives in a close-knit, hearing family, dominated by the noisy intellect of his academic father (Stanley Townsend), and his loud, non-PC views. Everyone is voluble and volatile; affection comes packaged with personal insults; argument is the domestic currency.
Self-expression is at the heart of their endeavours: Daniel (Harry Treadaway), Billy’s brother, is writing a thesis on the limits to language and Ruth (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), his sister, aspires to match words and music as an opera singer. Everyone shouts, except Billy, who remains isolated from the rough and tumble.
Things change when Billy meets Sylvia, who is losing her hearing and who works for a charity for the deaf. As their relationship develops, Billy’s attitude to his family shifts. He learns sign language, finds new companions and a new voice. Billy challenges his family and, in a brilliantly written scene, illustrates to them what it feels like not to understand all that is being said and just how little they actually communicate with one another.
The play is edgy, painful and shocking in places. It certainly has flaws: it is overloaded and sometimes too schematic (Billy’s abuse of his position as a lip-reader for the Crown Prosecution Service seems unnecessary and unlikely). But it broaches some fascinating questions about inclusion, language and how much remains unsaid.
Roger Michell’s production is beautifully judged, making eloquent use of surtitles in Mark Thompson’s design and drawing immense feeling out of a scene in which Sylvia plays a piano piece she can no longer quite hear. A fine ensemble features two excellent performances from Michelle Terry as Sylvia and Jacob Casselden as Billy. And, significantly for a work about hearing and being heard, this is a play that makes the audience listen intently. 4 stars Dominic Maxwell, Times, Friday 22 October 2010
Nina Raine is a playwright to watch. Four years after she reached the West End with her first play, Rabbit, she is finally back with this bigger, and even better follow-up. Tribes is a play about belonging, about deafness, about finding your voice. And, for its polyphonic first half at least, it’s about as sharp, witty and stimulating as a domestic drama can be.
Roger Michell’s deft production gives us a well-off, liberal family to believe in. Dad (Stanley Townsend) is a former academic with a big view on everything. Mum, Beth, (Kika Markham), has turned to novel writing late in life. And their twentysomething children are all at home. Daniel (Harry Treadaway), bumptious but fragile, is writing a thesis on language; Ruth (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is starting on a singing career, single, doubting herself; and Billy (Jacob Casselden), deaf since birth, tries and fails to keep up with the intellectual free-for-all that defines family life.
Raine has found everyone’s voice here. So we get to understand dad’s insistence that Billy does not learn sign language, lest he define himself as disabled. But then we understand Billy’s later insistence, after he has begun going out with Sylvia, a woman going deaf, that he communicates to them only in sign language. He finds his voice by refusing to speak.
Or he thinks he does, anyway. The drama is clear – the excellent cast’s body language is as articulate as their academic language – yet complex. And the long scene when Sylvia first meets the family is just perfect. As Sylvia, Michelle Terry gets across the nerves, politeness, defiance, and confusion of a woman suddenly caught in a personal and political pincer movement. And the rest of the cast capture beautifully that place where outspoken sentiments are both just a game, and also deeply personal.
The plottier second half can’t quit live up to that. It’s still good writing – but it feels like good writing, with some of the contrivances that one allows for in plays, where the first half felt uncannily like life, concentrated but real.
A subplot about Billy’s new career as a lip-reader is overkill. Raine’s empathy with her characters remains vivid throughout, though. She suggests what it’s like to go deaf, the hang-ups and the hierarchies. But also how the hearing can disable themselves with the sound of their own voices. A fresh, funny, and affecting evening. 4 stars Paul Taylor, Independent, Friday 22 October 2010
Nina Raine picked up a couple of “Most Promising Dramatist” awards for her 2006 play Rabbit. She amply fulfils that promise now with Tribes, a fiercely intelligent, caustically funny and emotionally wrenching piece about communication, belonging, and identity. It focuses on Billy (excellent Jacob Casselden), a young man who was born deaf and has been brought up as a lip-reader. Back home from university, he struggles to get a word in edgeways in a household of bickering egotists headed by Stanley Townsend’s exuberantly non-PC writer-father and including two fractiously frustrated, unemployed siblings – an aspiring academic (Harry Treadaway) and a wannabe opera-singer (Phoebe Waller-Bridge).
Liberation seems to beckon when Billy meets Sylvia (superlatively played by Michelle Terry) who is going deaf. As the child of deaf parents, she is proficient at signing and she introduces Billy to “the deaf community”, the very idea of which is contemptuously dismissed by his father, who thinks that to define oneself by a disability is tantamount to “basing your identity on coming from Gateshead”. The brilliant, painfully ironic twist is that Billy becomes a born-again militant, rejecting both speech and family, at the precise time that Sylvia is beginning to resist the hierarchical community with its snobberies (only those deaf from birth are truly kosher) and its ideologically driven failures of empathy (you aren’t allowed to mourn, as Sylvia does, the loss of any residual hearing).
There’s both a witty and a heartbreaking candour in Terry’s sensitive portrayal as we see when Sylvia flutteringly demonstrates the expressive beauty of sign language by translating a passage from Paradise Lost, or when she’s reluctantly forced to interpret Billy’s dogmatically signed outburst of rebuke for the benefit of his appalled family, or when she grieves for the once normal voice that is now getting flatter and for the irony she can no longer communicate.
The play is astute about the nature of tribes. Given its private jokes, incestuous squabbling and arrogant dismissal of outsiders, you can see why Billy is stung to declare that “if anywhere is a closed bloody ghetto it’s this bloody house.” I’m unsure, though, about the plot development whereby Billy, having become a forensic lip-reader for the Crown Prosecution Service, is accused of relying too much on intuitive guess-work to the extent of fabricating the evidence. It’s not that the idea is far-fetched; I just don’t think it psychologically likely in his case.
Tribes unfolds in a dramatically incisive mix of speech and sign language, the latter projected in words on an upstage gauze. Most piercing, though, are those moments of surtitled silence, as in the gestures of love between Billy and his mentally troubled brother that bring home the eloquence of what is left unsaid. These give the lie to the father’s smugly aggressive scepticism (“how can you feel a feeling unless you have a word for it?”) and tacitly establish that it’s hyper-articulacy that can sometimes be the real handicap.
4 stars Fiona Mountford, Evening Standard, Thursday 21 October 2010
It was a long wait but it’s been worth it. Four years after winning the Evening Standard’s Most Promising Playwright Award for her debut drama Rabbit, Nina Raine has avoided second-play syndrome with style. Through a perspicacious examination of a family, she considers issues as hefty as the limitations of communication and reaction to disability.
I confess that I wasn’t a fan of Rabbit, struggling as I did with its over-arch dialogue. The lengthy gap between plays one and two has seen Raine’s writing mature wonderfully, as the exchanges here are razor-sharp as well as utterly credible. Twentysomething siblings Daniel (Harry Treadaway) and Ruth (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) bicker with effortless erudition, as do writer parents Beth (Kika Markham) and Christopher (Stanley Townsend). Initially it seems as though we’re sitting around the dining table of a classic over-achieving, cultured modern family, possibly distant descendants of the Bliss clan in Noël Coward’s Hay Fever, or maybe even replicas of Raine’s own tribe (her father is poet Craig and her brother is also a writer).
The picture is clouded by deaf youngest son Billy (Jacob Casselden). The only time everyone stops interrupting each other is to listen with condescension when he speaks. Yet his friend Sylvia (Michelle Terry), who is losing her own hearing, has made him question why he must communicate on everyone else’s terms.
Raine has useful points to make about talking not being the same as actually saying anything, and the irony here is the person whose ears work least well is the best at listening. In whose interests are these loquacious liberals acting when they decree that Billy should not learn sign language? Does the label “deaf” signal a disability “ghetto” or a place of free expression?
Roger Michell directs with judicious periods of silence, and there are fine performances. Terry is sparky yet sensitive, and is enormously affecting when discussing Sylvia’s incipient deafness. Waller-Bridge, as a jittery wannabe opera singer, confirms the potential she’s shown over the past year. Raine, thankfully, isn’t going to make us wait so long: there’s more from her at Hampstead in January. 4 stars Claire Allfree, Metro, Friday October 22
Does ‘I love you’ mean the same in sign language as it does in speech? Do you need a word to describe a feeling or a thought before you feel or think it? These semiotic conundrums are at the heart of Nina Raine’s lovely new play, which combines the excellent ear for witty, crossfire dialogue she showcased in her debut, Rabbit, with a subtly intelligent probe into the shape-shifting capacities of language itself.
Billy, who is deaf, has always been encouraged to lip-read by his boisterous, cliquey, intellectually antagonistic family but when he meets a girlfriend who can sign, he insists his family have to learn sign too before he’ll talk to them again. Raine signposts her interest in the tribal mentality of minority communities a little too emphatically (the family are Jewish and bracingly non-PC towards other cultural groups) but mainly lets her ideas about how language can define and confine identity play out through her characters’ personal tensions. Roger Michell’s luminous production is full of sensitive performances in an evening that’s funny, clever, and, for the Royal Court, surprisingly moving. 4 stars Paul Callan, Daily Express, Friday 22 October 2010
There is a strong tribal element in every family. Whether father, mother and children teeter on the edge of dysfunction or hum along serenely, they cling together as an often voluble group with their own language.
The family members in Nina Raine’s new play relate to one another in a variety of often eccentric ways – from seething egotism to comic derision. But silently watching is the deaf son Billy who can only lip read.
In an outstanding and sensitive performance, Jacob Casselden (who is himself deaf) shows us a Billy who struggles to define the problems the hearing-impaired have to face. It is all a question of identity, dealing with both the deaf and hearing worlds. Most of it is a matter of not being treated differently as well as learning to cope.
Billy struggles with his family to achieve this. And there are some formidable portrayals – in particular Stanley Townsend as the booming, irascible father Christopher, and the sadly tender but downtrodden mother Beth, a finely observed performance by the ever-splendid Kika Markham.
Harry Treadaway is equally excellent as Billy’s neurotic brother Daniel (who has voices in his head) as is Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the frustrated, sharp-tongued sister Ruth who cannot find a boyfriend.
Then enter Sylvia, Billy’s new girlfriend who, unlike Billy who was born deaf, is going deaf slowly and strenuously resisting being solely defined by her encroaching condition. Michelle Terry is outstanding as Sylvia. Here is a young actress of exceptional talent whose whole body occupies the role.
This is a thought-provoking play and Roger Michell’s direction is sure-handed.
Nina Raine has cleverly caught the spirit of most families. The lively, often critical arguments are really an expression of love. And the more so if some physical disability is present.
4 stars Michael Coveny, What’s On Stage, Thursday 21 October 2010
It is 30 years since Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God brought deafness to the stage in an unusual love story; now Nina Raine writes a much edgier, and more blistering, domestic drama in which a deaf younger son, Billy, recently graduated, reassesses his relationship to his own family after meeting someone who listens to him more than they do.
Tribes certainly sits well with artistic director Dominic Cooke’s avowed policy of foregrounding middle-class issues and raising taboo subjects. Billy’s family is a nightmare collection of egotists, similar to Noel Coward’s self-absorbed Bliss family in Hay Fever.
Christopher (Stanley Townsend) is a loudmouth academic, full of racist jokes and put-downs, while his wife Beth (Kika Markham) is trying to finish a novel. This is a family who shout without listening, speak without feeling; Roger Michell’s production has an ironically high decibel level, for the first half-hour at least.
Billy’s siblings Daniel (Harry Treadaway) and Ruth (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) are, respectively, engaged on a thesis about the inadequacy of language and the transcendental power of music; Ruth is an aspiring opera singer.
Having subtly established the parameters of a debate about language – you never feel she’s being gratuitously diagrammatic – Raine introduces Billy’s friend, the catalytic Sylvia, brilliantly played by Michelle Terry, who is going slowly deaf and half speaking in sign language: she also recalls how to play Debussy on the piano.
The play is cleverly designed by Mark Thompson and beautifully lit by Rick Fisher, and settles around the developing relationship between Billy (touchingly played by deaf actor Jacob Casselden) and Sylvia, and the broken communication cord results in a vociferous showdown, complicated by an enigmatically puzzling court case involving Billy.
There are other loose ends, but the overwhelming impact of a highly original and cunningly written new play, superb acting all round, with Puccini’s Humming Chorus (no words) sealing some kind of reunion, all ensure another stimulating evening in Sloane Square.
David Benedict, Variety, Thursday 21 October 2010
Dialogue is merely a tool rather than the essence of playwriting. For proof, audiences need look no further than Nina Raine’s exhilarating “Tribes.” Her family drama features extraordinarily funny, daringly non-PC exchanges and confrontations brimming with truth-telling. But its most eloquent moments are unspoken. Roger Michell’s beautifully sustained direction ensures that abashed silences and the pulse-quickening tension between characters reveal subtext as legible as it is emotionally charged. Raine won several most promising newcomer awards for her debut “Rabbit.” She has now arrived, and then some.
Raine has the pleasing audacity to seduce her audience with what appears to be a smart and loud-mouthed comedy while quietly turning up the dramatic heat to deliver something altogether more troubled.
Billy (Jacob Casselden) is the quiet one in a high-voltage, highly articulate family. Christopher (Stanley Townsend) is the swaggering, academic father married to peacemaker wife Beth (Kika Markham), who is planning her new novel. Their pot-smoking Daniel (Harry Treadaway) willfully thinks he, too, might choose academia (his father argues a career as a stand-up would be better) while daughter Ruth (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is attempting to be an opera-singer, an idea that has got her as far as performing in “Aida” in a pub.
Arguments, in this household, are not only the stuff of life, they’re boisterous, bruising and immensely entertaining as everyone gives as good as they get. Except for Billy who is deaf.
Accomodation is easily and routinely made for his lack of hearing – he has hearing aids and is an uncommonly good lip-reader – but his view of the family and his place within it shifts radically when he starts a relationship with Sylvia (Michelle Terry), who is the daughter of deaf parents and is herself slowly going deaf.
Sylvia’s supreme confidence in both the hearing world and in what Christopher contemptuously labels “the deaf community” is a serious threat to the complacent family structure. And the scene where she is brought home to meet the family is a comic tour de force of embarrassment as high and low status bounces from one character to another.
On the surface, the typically bold dinner-table conversation – and the play as a whole – is predominantly about language. Sylvia is an extremely good signer, a skill Billy’s family has shunned. They want him to be included in the hearing world, not isolated from it. Sylvia’s presence, however, prompts Christopher into an aggressive argument that forces her on to the defensive about whether or not deaf-signing is a lesser version of the spoken word.
Signing, especially in Michelle Terry’s arrestingly unsentimental performance, is almost uniquely theatrical because it creates an engrossing gap between what is being seen and what is being said. That gap is visibly bridgeable, an idea Raine exploits brilliantly.
She uses it as a plot point in the fast-moving second act but also harnesses its expressive power to show Billy and Sylvia’s upsetting emotional trajectories. All this releases the play from even approaching being a single-issue debate drama.
Michell’s direction is like fine tailoring: crucial, structural and almost invisible. Alive to every nuance of the text, he encourages a daring breadth of expression throughout his immaculate cast without ever leading to exaggeration or “directorial underlining.” That degree of clarity is equally controlled by Mark Thompson’s spare design, lit with subtle warmth by Rick Fisher who can pick out a vase of tulips and give it tenderness.
As Billy breaks free of self-imposed constraint, it becomes rivetingly clear that “Tribes” is using the idea of a family endlessly talking but rarely listening as an emotionally resonant metaphor. As the title indicates, Raine is really examining communication and belonging. It would, however, do the play a grave disservice to label it simply as being “about power and identity politics.” Her writing is far too compassionate for that.
Sylvia is inexorably losing her hearing. At the close of the first act, she heartbreakingly plays “Clair de lune” on the piano and silences everyone. She cannot hear it, but the theater fills not just with Debussy’s music but the sound of profoundly satisfying ideas holding an audience in thrall. 4 stars John Nathan, Jewish Chronicle, October 22, 2010
Twenty minutes into Nina Raine’s play, I put something in my notebook that seemed insightful at the time. I wrote that this is the first English non-Jewish family I have seen on stage who argue like Jews.
Which is not to say that all Jewish families argue like the family depicted in Raine’s play, like hyenas over a carcass. But it is to say that the kind of family that communicate in no-holds-barred rows; have a quasi-Asberger’s disregard for the feelings of those they love most, and constantly probe for the weakness in every sentence, invariably, that family is Jewish.
The ferocious argument, superbly staged around a dining table by director Roger Michell, is a way of expressing love. The odd one out is Billy (Jacob Casseldine), the deaf student son. Though he is more loved than anyone, in a family that defines itself through verbal battling, he is inevitably sidelined.
Raine gained a reputation for writing great dialogue with her first play, Rabbit. With Tribes, she confirms it. The exchanges are exhilarating, closely observed and cutting, even if the drama on which they are based sometimes feels merely like a vehicle for the dialogue.
Here, the don’t-give-an-inch quarrels are not about who does the washing-up but about whether each family member’s opinion, whether on art or politics, can stand up to the ruthless scrutiny of everyone else around the table.
Take the exchange driven by Christopher (Stanley Townsend), the foul-mouthed father and academic who attacks cliché and conformity wherever he finds it. He is appalled to learn that Billy is learning to sign from his new girlfriend, Sylvia (Michelle Terry).
Billy has been deliberately brought up not to learn sign language. To sign, he would have to join the deaf community, goes Christopher’s argument, and to join the deaf community is to conform to a group that bases its identity on persecution. “The deaf! The f*****g Muslims of the handicapped world,” says Christopher, before declaring that sign language constructs personas based on the kind of fake joviality that he also detects in northern people.
It is here that Daniel (Harry Treadaway), the other son, jokes that he thought sign language was Jewish, not northern. He illustrates his point with a bit of grotesque gesticulation. “I’m allowed,” he adds, “we’re Jewish.”
At this point, I crossed out my note.
The question posed by Raine’s play explores the extent to which identity is forged and hijacked by the groups we join and the families to whom we belong. And it does so in a thrillingly articulate and sometimes shocking way. But when Billy opts out of the family and into a community of fellow deaf people, the play begins to feel less dangerous and more like the kind of drama in which liberal, atheistic parents find to their horror that they have a religious son.
Still, Raine’s writing is so intelligent, even well- trodden territory feels virgin. And she finds inventive ways to examine her themes. When Billy and Sylvia use (surtitled) sign language to communicate, the rest of the family find themselves in the position in which Billy has lived all his life.
And in one quiet, immensely poignant moment, a play populated by shouters gives over to a speechless exchange between Billy and brother Daniel, with everything contained in an exchanged look.
It is also worth noting that after the un-PC racial politics expressed in its recent production, Clybourne Park, the Royal Court is becoming the theatre where the unsayable is said.
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