MTC: An interesting and engaging domestic piece performed by a tightly bound, very talented ensemble, Tribes takes us into the politics and prejudices surrounding deafness.
, as produced by the Melbourne Theatre Company, creates an engaging family portrait that – despite falling into the pathways of constructed family dysfunction – constructs a narrative that reaches outside of the domestic unit and into the world of the Deaf community, reflecting the suffocation that sometimes comes with those who ‘try to do their best for you’.
An upper middle class family of Jewish intellectuals, the family unit in Tribes use argument and verbal patter as their main form of communication and identification. At least, this is the way they would all like to tell it, the exception being the youngest son, Billy (Luke Watts), who was born deaf and who spends most of the time sitting silently amongst the chatter – an act his relatives take for complicity in the family dynamic. This changes when he meets Sylvia (Alison Bell), a woman heavily involved in the Deaf community. Born hearing, but having deaf parents, she is in the middle of losing her hearing completely. This relationship opens Billy up to the Deaf community, which his parents have deliberately kept from him. In their view, connecting Billy with people who are like him would ‘hobble’ him somehow, pushing him down the path of hearing aids and speech therapy.
For many, this play would act as an introduction to the politics and prejudices surrounding deafness, as well as Deafness. Billy’s increasing awareness of how his family’s good but severely misguided intentions have caused him to miss out is thoughtfully set up in the first act – although the increasingly horrible commentary from his father, Christopher (Brian Lipson), on what he thinks of the Deaf community is often almost too much to take in order for a point to get across. But that is what this commentary, this talk, reveals itself to be; this bluster with lack of tenderness means that not only is Billy’s deafness discounted, but so are the opening paragraphs of his mother Beth’s (Sarah Peirse) first novel, and so are the increasing voices in his brother Daniel’s (David Paterson) head. The family is bound in the field of linguistic battle, but no ground is ever given in the name of empathy; they can argue until they’re blue in the face about the free play of signs and signifiers, but the only signing that Billy is truly interested in is summarily dismissed as a dull pantomime, a pale imitation of the English language.
It is the entrance of Sylvia that interrupts and awakens Billy, and Alison Bell encapsulates the heart of the show with her brilliant performance. Her character pulls all the threads together, with her knowledge of hearing and not hearing, as well as being the outsider who must be begrudgingly accepted into a home that defines itself through verbal cruelty, an act she equally dismisses and struggles to protect herself from. Bell has created a restrained and utterly engaging performance, gathering the audience as well as the family around her, hanging on her every word as she is transformed from a conduit for Billy and a representation of the Deaf community to the very woman who both embraces, and disassembles, the motivations and affectations behind the family’s very dysfunction.
I was greatly encouraged to watch a domestic ensemble piece coming out of the MTC. With an increasing, and occasionally worrying, trend towards spending more time on sets than scripts, this was an interesting and engaging piece of theatre, performed by a tightly bound, very talented ensemble that hopefully has scratched the surface of a few issues that, up to now, have not been properly explored. One jarring note was the ending, which felt oversimplified, in some ways embarrassing an up-until-then well written script.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
By Nina Raine
Director: Julian Meyrick
Set Design: Stephen Curtis
Costume Design: Louise McCarthy
Lighting Designer: Matt Scott
Composer/Sound Designer: Tim Dargaville
Cast: Alison Bell, Julia Grace, Brian Lipson, David Paterson, Sarah Peirse, Luke Watts
The MTC Theatre, Sumner
4 February–12 March, 2012