When I first heard about TRIBES, I thought it sounded a bit like a television movie of the week -- a deaf kid growing up in a non-deaf household. But the brilliantly written play by Nina Raines was so much more than that. It's about the various ways that people who love each other communicate and don't communicate -- about various forms of verbal and non-verbal language.
Most of the play takes place around a large kitchen table. The family is affluent, hyper-articulate and committed in various ways to expression. Christopher, the father, is a literary critic; Ruth, his wife is a novelist. Daniel is studying literary theory at university. His sister, Ruth, wants to be an opera singer. The oldest son, Billy, just home from university, is deaf. As a result, he cannot participate fully in the constant roar of conversation and argument surrounding him. He has been raised to function in a non-deaf world, to listen, lip read and speak, but not to sign. He has little connection with other deaf people until he meets and falls in love with Sylvia, who was raised by deaf parents and is now going deaf. Sylvia has been around the deaf community enough to know it is insular, hierarchical and not totally satisfying. This is much the way Daniel, Ruth and Billy see their family.
Billy moves out of the family home to live with Sylvia. He loves being part of a deaf community and is angry that his family never learned sign language -- that he had to do al the work of understanding them. Unfortunately his brother Daniel, who hears voices, cannot cope without his beloved brother and goes to pieces. And Sylvia, not born deaf, but now going deaf, needs more understanding and compassion than Billy can provide. He loves her in part because she can sign and teach him to sign and thus be part of the deaf community. However, deafness is new to her, and frightening in ways he cannot appreciate. "I didn't know deafness could be so loud," she cries. She's rather be part of the troubled, noisy world of Billy's family.
TRIBES is a play about language and love. Throughout we hear bits of opera because, as one character says, "what's great about opera is that it creates feelings that you can't put into words." The final moments are played with the haunting wordless humming chrus from MADAMA BUTTERFLY playing in the background. But some characters don't believe feelings can exist without words. At the end, Daniel is beginning to learn sign language so he can reach out to Billy on Billy's terms. He asks Billy what the sign is for love. When Daniel tries to sign "love", "it looks like he's miming being in a straitjacket."
This is a beautifully written play. I have been reading Jonathan Franzen's novel FREEDOM. Nina Raines has Franzen's ability to turn a domestic story into something much deeper, with cultural and metaphysical resonances. The production by veteran stage and film director Roger Michell (NOTTING HILL) is simple, elegant and deeply moving. The entire cast is brilliant, particularly Harry Treadaway as haunted Daniel and Michelle Terry as Sylvia, so wanting to be part of the world of sound. At the end of act I, the Family listens to Sylvia play Debussy's "Claire de Lune" on the piano, not totally aware that she can no longer hear the music she creates. Michelle Terry is the finest young British actress, moving from role to role with total mastery. As the play goes on and she loses the ability to hear herself, we hear her language flatten out.
The trouble with productions in limited runs is that one does not have time to see them again. We'd love a second chance to see TRIBES.
I've been writing recently about the cost of theatergoing. We saw TRIBES at a Monday night performance at the Royal Court with all seats £10. The theater was packed -- the entire run is sold out -- and at least half of the audience was under 30, many of the age of the twenty-something characters they were watching. Very healthy.
TRIBES by Nina Raine. Directed by Roger Michell. Royal Court Theatre. November 8, 2010.