Tribes – a family with a listening disorder
Tribes by Nina Raine
Directed by Shane Bosher
A Silo Theatre Production
Maidment Theatre, Auckland
Until June 30
Silos new play Tribes could have been called Families because it deals with a contemporary family and its problems. The title conjures up images of primitive social groups, isolated and protective of themselves from outside influences.
But that is also the definition of most families.
They are insular, have their own ingrained mythologies, sets of rules and a belief in their own rightness. The problems they have are their own special ones which was neatly summed up by Tolstoy’s line that "happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way".
Central to the problems of families and tribes is the whole notion of communication. The family in Tribes is an intellectual lot crumbling at its edges.
Christopher, the father is a teacher with an opinion on everything literary, son Daniel is trying to write a thesis on language using all the right words (Lacan and semiotics), mother Beth is writing a crime novel (although the story is about a marriage breakup), while daughter Ruth, a singer, is interested in understanding the meaning of the words of the operatic arias she sings.
Over the dinner table their conversation flows and cascades, ideas are raised and challenged, there are ripostes and insults. It looks like great fun – a family united and divided by their interest in words and language. They have a camaraderie which expresses a familial love but hides a darker core.
And then there is Billy, the deaf son who is accepted and loved because he conforms to the rules of the normal family, doesn’t feel connected to the deaf tribe and manages to communicate with his parents and siblings.
That is, until he learns more about himself and being deaf when he finds a soulmate, Sylvia, who is also deaf. The rules change. The family is threatened and starts to question itself.
Much of the play is about communication – about how we communicate ideas, emotions and stories. Language is used as a powerful tool by all the characters to communicate, taunt, insult, explain and describe.
The characters discuss and rave about the various ways and the best ways to communicate – through fiction, through speech, analytical writing music opera and, of course, sign language.
Several of the signed and unsigned interchanges are also back projected onto the stage and we see what are others are saying and thinking.
Additional to these is the use of body language and here the cast excel. While they are able to articulate the ideas and emotions verbally it is the way in which they physically interact which most is telling.
So, Michael Hurst as Christopher with his pugnacious, staring stance, Leon Wadham as Billy with his uncomprehending gaze, and Emmett Skilton as Daniel with an at times fearful expression add to the density of the play expressing palpable tension.
Sylvia is brilliantly captured by Jodie Hillock, presenting a woman who is cautious and suspicious as the family pry into her world.
Catherine Wilkin as Beth and Fern Sutherland as Ruth give exceptional performances as they seek to find their means of expression through writing and singing.
Jodie Hillock and Leon Wadham also do a great job in using sign language ,and her signing description of a poem appears to be as eloquent as the words themselves.
While this is partly a play about the problems deaf people have in communicating with non-deaf people, it is also a comment on areas of language which many people have difficulty understanding, such as bureaucratic language, the words of operas and academic post-modern writing.