Tribes by Nina Raine
Performed at the Melbourne Theatre Company March 2012
Deafness is a terrifying subject for a stage or a screen production. It blows apart the most fundamental and unquestioned assumption ever made by anyone who has written dialogue: that all characters hear – everything, the first time, and every time.
Yes, Tribes did slip up here. There were some instances when the play’s two deaf characters could magically lipread the back of a head, and there were no barrages of the “whats?” and “sorrys?” that are all over conversations between deaf and hearing people.
But to dismiss Tribes for these reasons would do it a monstrous injustice. This play was incisive, compelling and utterly authentic in its revelations of some of the numerous collisions between those who hear and those who occasionally snatch a word here or there in the verbal snowstorm of many people talking.
Tribes is a family: Christopher and Ruth, their sons Dan and Billy, and a daughter Ruth. She and Dan have returned to live at home. Billy, who is deaf, acquires a girlfriend Sylvia, who is also deaf. Sylvia’s obvious connection with the deaf community sets off a chain reaction in Billy’s attitudes to his family.
The opening scene was memorable. With his stillness and stocky build, Billy resembled a rock. He presided in lofty serenity at one end of the dinner table, while all about him his family indulged in a conversational boilover of smartarse bonmots, putdowns, shouting, sarcasm and attention-seeking. His first spoken line was, what are you talking about? No family member tried to answer this other than in the most general way. But Billy hammered this question and the massive elephant in the room it represented: exclusion, allowing Tribes to draw out its theme of how we take refuge in groups.
The most obnoxious character was one of the more important. If the whole community was All in the Family, then the father, Christopher, played Archie Bunker to Billy and Sylvia’s deaf community. Christopher was strident and aggressive in demanding answers to all the questions that hearing audiences, fronting up for Deafness 101, would be wanting to ask, but much more politely. This gave Tribes an entertaining educational twang, and it didn’t matter that answers might have been obscure.
Billy’s sudden transformation into radical deafdom, when he refused to speak unless his family agreed to learn to sign, was glib but served several purposes. It contrasted with Sylvia’s looming disengagement, and set up Billy for the enormous risk of losing his family. That was when the family realised how important he was. He was almost the rock upon which the family built its church.
Billy’s job as a lipreader for the Crown Prosecution Service at first seemed to entrench the popular myth of lipreading as a superhuman power possessed by an esoteric order of the deaf. (The most fatuous book title in the history of literature, by the way, was The Bomb That Could Lipread.) The exposure of Billy’s duplicity in pretending to lipread when he couldn’t was a brilliant way to puncture such a myth. The breathtaking irony was that much of lipreading is actually about pretence and guess work, except that judicial processes are not usually at stake. If hearing people regard lipreading as the acceptable portal between hearing and deaf, then Billy tried, and failed, to succeed on hearing terms. It was another example of the way Tribes hinted at the multiple hidden nuances and paradoxes of deafness. It’s just that there were too many of them.
Sylvia’s disillusionment with the deaf community and revelation of hierarchies was insightful and relevant, building a picture of complexity and layers. Her distraught response to her own vanishing sense of hearing was important and worthy of its own exploration, but made this play crowded.
The most disappointing aspect of Tribes was its twee and unconvincing ending. It was as though the writer, Nina Raine, thought, whoa, this is getting too big and going too far, and felt compelled to chop it all off and flourish something palatable for hearing audiences, like an oversized fluffy bear on St Valentine’s Day. It’s the easiest gig in town for hearing people to learn the sweet little sign for LOVE, as Dan did for his brother. It’s a lot harder for hearing people to accept deaf people for who they are. This means respecting the deaf person’s own choices and decisions about deafness and what it means for them. It’s a long stretch to imagine that happening in the Tribes family.
The performance this reviewer attended was a revelation, for another reason. In the past, to make any sense of live theatre, I resembled a Hindu deity with multiple arms. I needed one arm to hold open a tightly bound script; another to manipulate a torch; another to hold a scarf over the torch to dull the light; another to hold my place in the script while studying the stage action; and after losing the plot in the first five minutes, a final set of arms to shove the whole mess under the seat.
Not for Tribes. The stage featured two flat screens set up high on either side of the stage. These reproduced the script, with different colours for different characters. This was captioned theatre, just one of the Melbourne Theatre Company’s impressive suite of facilities and services to make live theatre accessible to everyone. It was simple, blissful and exactly right. That hapless Hindu deity has now become a good drinking story.
Tribes neither demonised hearing people nor presented deaf people as saintly sufferers patiently awaiting their reward in the kingdom of the hearing. It dodged cliché and stereotype by placing deafness in the context of family, of community, and of personal journeys. The play did take on too much, and not all will agree with what it did present. Any dramatist brave enough to tackle deafness will never please everyone. But Tribes had a vigorous go, tied it to some universal themes, and by doing so, gave us entertaining and insightful theatre.
An edited version of this review was published in March 2012 on the website of Divine