From Dublin: A review of TRIBES

by Lynn on October 3, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

I’m in Dublin for the first week of the Dublin Theatre Festival. The Festival began Sept. 28 and will conclude Oct. 14.

At the Gate Theatre, Dublin, Ireland

Written by Nina Raine
Directed by Oonagh Murphy
Set and costumes by Conor Murphy
Lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin
Sound by Ivan Birthistle
Video designer, Conan McIvor
Cast: Fiona Bell
Gavin Drea
Clare Dunne
Nick Dunning
Gráinne Keenan
Alex Nowak

Nina Raine writes about the politics of deafness in this bristling, pulsing, challenging play. Billy was born deaf. His parents were determined to treat him as if he were ‘normal.’ Then he met Sylvia who was losing her hearing and taught Billy how to do sign language. And all hell broke out as a result.

Conor Murphy’s set is black for the most part: black dinner table, black chairs and black piano. There are three banks of panels above the stage. Sometimes what people are thinking is printed on a panel. Sometimes what Billy is saying is noted there too. Sometimes projections of a character’s hands are shown or characters floating underwater.

The main use is much subtler. Lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin illuminates the panels in soft coloured light for the scenes with the hearing family and in black or white light for scenes with Billy alone or with another character. Director Oonagh Murphy and her design team are certainly ‘illuminating’ the text with this clever use of light and the darkness of the set.

Alex Nowak as Billy is in fact a hearing impaired actor. Every actor I’ve seen play Billy in other productions is deaf. They would have to be. Mr. Nowak is the most difficult to understand of the other two production of Tribes I’ve seen. But that just means I have to work harder to hear and listen to what he’s saying. Occasionally in this production what he is saying is noted in letters illuminated above the stage but not always. To be able to read what Billy is saying would make things easier. But Tribes is not meant to make things easier. It’s meant to challenge and engage and that it does in spades.

At the beginning of the play the family is at the dinner table arguing about some niggling point or other. Christopher, the pompous father (he writes critical books winging about all manner of stuff) is holding court and shouting everyone down, as is his style. Beth, his wife (trying to write novels) is arguing back. Daniel and Ruth are their two grown children who have come home to live—Daniel is a lost soul writing the twelfth version of an esoteric thesis and Ruth is trying to be an opera singer. They all flit around the table and the room, animated. Billy sits with his back to us quietly eating, not engaging. He wears a hearing aid behind each ear lobe. Director Oonagh Murphy makes him prominent because his back is to us, his head is tilted down as he eats quietly and is still for the most part.

When they do talk to Billy they look at him and he reads their lips. That is how they communicate. His mother taught him to speak when he was young and he had to learn to lip read then too. The family refused to have him learn sign language because that would make him different, set him apart. He did go to a deaf school initially but he didn’t like it and the family stopped sending him. Billy, also an adult, lives at home.

Then he meets Sylvia who is losing her hearing and Billy is smitten. He learns sign language for her. His physical manner becomes more animated, athletic even as he signs with passion, gusto and pent up emotion. Billy finds his voice in a sense through signing.

But we also see Billy’s continued isolation at the end of Act I. Sylvia is desperate to hang on to her hearing. She plays the piano at Billy’s house when she is first invited. She plays “Clare de Lune.” It’s beautiful. The family gathers around the piano, reveling in the music, except Billy, who sits at the table, obviously uncomfortable and not included because he can’t hear the beautiful playing. This time instead of tuning out his family, he is desperate to be included and he isn’t. Poignant and heartbreaking.

With his new voice is the obvious wish that his family learn sign language to communicate with him and him with them. Another wrinkle in this wonderfully layered play, is that Daniel is obviously got issues. He hears voices. He is probably schizophrenic. He has a stammer so severe that it prevents him from speaking. Sign language might be his only recourse. Ironic.

Alex Nowak as Billy is watchful and graceful in his body language. When he signs he is energetic. As Sylvia, Clare Dunne has as many layers to her character as Nowak does. She is almost sensual when signing ideas and sentences that Christopher throws out to her. She speaks loudly to the family as one might do if one is going deaf. Dunne illuminates Sylvia’s quiet desperation at how her world is shutting down. You ache for her and Billy.

Nina Raine’s play continues to challenge and present all sides of a difficult situation. The production beautifully illuminates the arguments and the subtleties of the situation.

Presented by the Gate Theatre, Ireland.

Closes: Oct. 14, 2017.

Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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