It is the most exclusive club you will ever belong to, one with complicated politics, history and traditions, its own unspoken rules and in-jokes. But this isn’t a club you are given the choice to join. Instead you are born into it and become, quite literally, one of the family.
Nina Raine’s new play Tribes takes this idea and places it on stage in an over-familiar, bickering, loud and chaotic drama. With a sarcastic, academic father, a peacemaking, bohemian mother and three lost children in their twenties who have flown the nest and then flown right back again, the family speak in abundance, but never seem to listen. The exception is youngest son Billy. Deaf from birth, he has been placed on a pedestal and granted the most loved and revered space in the family unit, but also the most ignored.
When Billy meets Sylvia – a particularly compelling character played by Michelle Terry who, currently going deaf, is dealing with losing the little hearing she has left – his eyes are seemingly opened as he finds a new community where he feels he finally belongs. After being brought up by his parents to ignore his disability and, in fact, reject the idea of having a disability at all, Sylvia’s world of deaf artists, deaf events and signing are a liberation. But what happens when the politics of this world become as skewed as the politics within your family? Raine addresses the prejudices that lie within each community, hidden but very real, snobbish and ultimately isolating.
Tribes naturalistic style is at times overwhelming as each scene around the family’s dining table is punctuated with a constant level of noise; if people aren’t shouting over one another, loud music from Puccini to Madness is playing. Although Tribes is painfully moving in parts and contains moments of poignancy that are so intimate the audience almost want to direct their eyes from the characters on stage, the play is also as chaotic and as un-PC as they come.
Christopher, played by Stanley Townsend with a booming voice and an air of nonchalance only broken on principle for angry bursts of debate, enjoys shocking his children and reprobating them for anyone different they bring home. Daughter and opera singer-wannabe Ruth suffers from a bad case of middle child syndrome and a serious lack of intellectual capacity compared to the rest of her over-achieving family, declaring sign language to be sexy and walking around with actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s signature gormless look.
It is Billy and oldest son Daniel, played respectively by Jacob Casselden and Harry Treadaway, who the family revolve around. Billy, kind, soft and open, is directly contrasted by Daniel who, handsome, overly confident and possessing the vocabulary of a Dawson’s Creek teenager, is quickly revealed to be a pit of nerves, a victim to auditory hallucinations as a result of his skunk habit, and intensely jealous. But one cannot survive without the other and both come apart at the seams when a controversial decision by Billy tears the family apart.
Although a play about a dysfunctional upper-middle class family is nothing new to the Royal Court, Raine tackles politics that are rarely dealt with on stage and the provocative Tribes is sure to spark debate.