Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Tribes, Royal Court

Review: Tribes, Royal Court

The Royal Court sets out once again to expose the ‘er’ at the centre of liberal sensibilities in Nina Raine’s expressive and articulate play that inserts a deaf protagonist into the chattering classes.

At times, Tribes seems like a nature documentary. In its natural habit, primarily pinging provocations around the dinner table, the family unit Raine presents is driven by pack mentality and pecking order. They erect a perimeter fence around themselves with a cultivated cultural bias that both strengthens and excludes. Yet, their meritocratic snobbery belies their social liberalism. Some animals remain more equal than others.

Dad’s an academic, Mum’s a novelist. The eldest, Daniel, is writing a doctoral thesis on linguistic philosophy and Ruth, his sister, is an aspiring but uninspiring opera singer. Billy, the youngest, is deaf.

So, as conversation clatters around the pointedly circular dining table, Billy gets left behind. He sits silent, struggling to spot whose lips need reading before the argument darts off to another of the talking heads around the table. The irony is that Billy has been brought up so as not to be defined by his deafness. His parents absolutely refuse to let it be “a handicap.” That it should prove exactly that is down to their refusal to admit it as such and embrace sign language together.

The telling moment is the family’s reaction to Billy’s new job lip reading for the Crown Prosecution Service, as suggested by his new girlfriend Sylvia. She’s losing her hearing, but having been raised by deaf parents, is fluent in sign and immersed in the Deaf community. On Billy’s announcement, the family stop, stunned, never having considered the possibility of Billy’s deafness proving advantageous. “It’s a skill,” he says. Their astonishment belies the family’s perception that deafness is a disadvantage better glossed over than acknowledged.

The dramatic thrust comes as Billy shifts allegiance, growing ever closer to the Deaf community. Again at Sylvia’s suggestion, he learns sign language, finding his voice for the first time. At the same time, however, Sylvia moves oppositely, looking on the family that comes to accept her as an escape from the insular, hierarchical structures of the Deaf community. “Everyone,” she says, “has slept with everyone.” As her hearing decreases, so do the people with whom she can really communicate, dictated by a mutual fluency in sign.

The conflict, then, is between the acceptance of disability and the refusal to be defined by it.

What’s incredible about Raine’s script is the way in which she constructs a credible world from a single theme. Almost every component part has to do with communication or the impossibility of it. Underneath the surface, which pits lip-reading, sign language and speech in competition, Raine riffs on everything from body language to translation. For instance, Harry Treadaway’s Daniel, Billy’s older brother, develops auditory hallucinations, regains the stammer that afflicted him through childhood and has a slight but mystical ability to communicate with Billy telepathically. It’s as if Raine has painstakingly assembled the play with tweezers and the result is, at one level, a deeply pensive seminar on linguistics.

Roger Michell’s direction picks up on it beautifully, sometimes adding the most remarkable insights with equal delicacy. The projected surtitles that accompany Billy and Sylvia’s signing fade gently, echoing the dispersion of the smoke-filled words that drift from Daniel’s mouth mid-ciggarette. Words become transient. Some are effervescent, some are thudding, but all are fleeting and only half considered. Their effects, however, are strong and often lasting. Here you become attuned the rippling consequences of words uttered. Human communication becomes a chain reaction of cause and – often unintended – effect.

Equally fascinating is Raine’s portrait of the chattering classes. Theirs is a worldview governed by merit – and a particularly bourgeois notion of merit at that. Intellectual snobbery is rife. For this lovingly provocative family, as Daniel says, “you are how talented you are, how quick you are.” “The majority,” jokes Christopher, “is always wrong.” Outsiders are excluded by family slang (cigarettes are ‘nuit-graves’) and in jokes. Ex-girlfriends are derided for their Northern roots and perceived plainness. There is no greater sin than bland conformity. This family abhors a vacuum.

From that worldview, there emerges a savage sibling rivalry. In fact, the whole family seems – for the most part – angry with one another, constantly at each others’ throats. Daniel derides his sister, Ruth prods at her brother. Dad knocks them both at every opportunity, whilst pretentiously over-peppering his figs. Little that his children are yet to leave home, given the exaggerated hype and pressure of the so-called ‘real world’. Raine perfectly captures the paralysing imposition of baby-boomer ideals onto a new generation.

But this is how they love one another: not affectionately, but competitively, challenging one another. Prior to the final conciliatory embrace between brothers, there is almost no physical contact between family members. Occasionally, Daniel pinches Ruth or Ruth flicks out at Daniel, but contact is never born of warmth. The closest we get is when Beth (Kika Markham) sits bursting her son’s blister, hunched over his feet like a personal valet.

What doesn’t quite come across so well is the emotional connection of the piece. In part, that’s down to a second half that, by squeezing too much in, must skim over some narrative progression. Raine is guilty of overdoing the symptoms that we have come to associate with Royal Court kids: the signs of schizophrena that Daniel develops due to pot don’t quite feel deserved and Ruth’s inadequacy, though it justifies her neurotic self-pity, is too all-encompassing.

More than that, though, it is a symptom of Michell’s calculated and minimalist direction, which often feels legible rather than truthful. Rather than playing the family dynamic naturalistically, allowing his characters to wonder whither they please, Michell choreographs them into pointed place. We’re never allowed to miss the allegiances being formed thanks to blocking that regularly clumps a group on one side of the table and leaves the individual under attack isolated on the other. Tribes would benefit from more domestic clutter to conceal its thematic aims. Michell needs to distract the characters from the internal relationships if we are to succumb to Tribes emotionally.

That’s also evident in certain performances. Where the various characteristic strands coalesce into a whole – Townsend and Michelle Terry are particularly well-rounded – there’s a transparency to the actor’s workings. As, Billy’s elder siblings, Treadaway and Phoebe Waller-Bridge both make excellent choices to convey stilted awkwardness and insecurities, but can’t quite carry them off smoothly. They still feel like conscious choices rather than unconscious traits.

But this is stunning stuff, simultaneously nourishing and beautiful. Challenged on the failings of sign as a linguistic system – the assumption being that one tribes’ language is above anothers – Terry’s Sylvia translates a poem with her hands and there emerges a moment of transfixing serenity. Her hands move with the precision and fluency of kabuki theatre, a rhymthic whir of fingers that – like language spoken – really resonates. Raine’s play – dense, though never tangled; wise, but not pompous; critical, but never harsh – does the same. Forget Clybourne Park, Tribes is the most intelligent and human play of the year.

Photograph: Donald Cooper

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