Now how to express my experience? [by James Wenley]
Tribes comes to Auckland’s stage with a babble of hype and expectation. Only playwright Nina Raine’s second play (after Rabbit which Silo performed in 2008 ), it’s something of an international critical darling after its debut at London’s Royal Court in 2010. Just last week it won New York Drama Desk’s Outstanding play award. So no question it would be good then, but just how much. Answer? Very good indeed.
One of the titular tribes in the play are a family (unencumbered by surname) an internally-warring yet deeply self-protective family made up of Dad Christopher (Michael Hurst), Mother Beth (Catherine Wilken), boomerang twenty-something kids Daniel (Emmett Skilton) and Ruth (Fern Sutherland), and youngest Billy (Leon Wadham) who, while being careful not define him as such, is deaf. The family have proudly bought him up in a ‘speaking’ environment, getting by with hearing aids and lip reading (a painfully slow learning process, credit to Mum).
This family’s default mode of communication, summed up by Christopher is: “Join in, have an argument”. Tribes launches us into a noisy family dinner; everyone speaking over the top of each other, getting their two cents in. It’s a revealing mixture of affection, annoyance and mocking that close familiarity breeds, and a very recognisable family dynamic indeed. But everyone? Billy, watching, processing, becomes my figure of attention, for the family are all but ignoring him. He says little, save for an odd “What are you talking about?”.
The other tribe is the ‘deaf community’; Sylvia (Jodie Hillock), Billy’s fledging love interest, the reluctant ambassador. Born into a deaf signing family, she is losing her hearing herself, straddling the two worlds. Through her, we get a sense of the deaf tribe’s own culture and hierarchies, positive and negative.
So we are set up for a clash of value systems and prejudices, as Billy goes through a rite of passage to break away from the family unit and forge his own identity. But not through drugs, alcohol, or overseas travel, but *shock horror*, through Sign Language!
In Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Tribes the role of Billy was played by a hearing-impaired actor – that must have been fascinating. In Silo’s, director Shane Bosher has found recent Toi Whakaari Grad Leon Wadham, who gives a performance all the more remarkable for the fact that it moves beyond mimicry, studying faces for clues and capturing the vocal quality of someone who has learnt to speak without the ear. At first I watch his craft, wondering about his actor’s journey to get to opening night, but soon I settle and watch Billy, not Leon, and find myself more and more invested in the character’s struggle.
While Billy is the centre piece role, there were many performances I enjoyed along the way. Hurst’s provocative and jollily insensitive Father that makes you shudder in your seats with cringe. Wilkin’s long-suffering and wry mother. Sutherland’s Hillock’s attempts at both impressing the family, and not taking their BS, and kept-to-herself sadness.
Emmett Skilton’s brother Daniel is first written off as a bit of a lout, but we see his deep love for his little brother through a series of hearts and hearts, and has his own cross to bear keeping ‘voices’ and a stutter at bay, and becomes just as fascinating a character in his own right.
Tribes wears its themes on its sleeves – perhaps too overtly at times. Daniel is writing a thesis on the relation between language and meaning. Ruth sings Opera no-one understands, so she wants to translate it into English. But these are background colour to where the themes really soar – the tribal conflict, Sylvia as intruder and threat, and Billy’s rebellion.
What I was most astounded about was Christopher’s violent reaction to his son’s desire to learn sign. In this country there’s a certain feel-good positivity attached to our third official language – see the praise heaped on Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker’s use of a Signer. Christopher wants his son to operate in the ‘mainstream’ world. Signing is a political act, touching on the politics of conformity and normality. And in Tribes you can understand both sides.
We get to see a lot of signing in Tribes, particularly in the second half, and writing as someone who hasn’t had much exposure to it, I’m fascinated by the movement and expressiveness. A poem is translated from speech to sign – which is better? We become acutely aware of both form’s strengths and limitations.
The play’s clever masterstroke is surtitles projecting large on the stage’s back wall. Initially for the translation of sign, its use expands to take in subtext – what is really meant – as well as body language – what is unsaid, but definitely expressed. We are reminded to watch for the totality of expression – sign and language are never enough in themselves.
Music (Sean Lynch) is used beautifully throughout – from the opening strains of an orchestra warming up, familiar classical and pop tunes, and all the more poignant considering music is something Sylvia is no longer able to experience.
Tribes could easily be stifling earnest. Instead it’s rude, crude, profound and personal, moving without manipulating. For Billy, it becomes more than about signing. It’s a deeper problem, a very human need to be both listened to, and understood. What Tribes as Theatre does most powerfully is facilitates a shift in perspective about how other people experience the world. A hit from the Silo Tribe!
Tribes is presented by Silo and plays at The Maidment Theatre until 30th June. More details see Silo.
Check out Sharu’s preview with Fern Sutherland and Michael Hurst