Ever since the Atreides clan established the dramatic template for dysfunctional relationships, the theatre has been a burning glass in which the psychoses of everyday life are focused to a white-hot lance. It's no mystery why Freud loved the Greeks. Nina Raine's noisy bohemian family in Tribes, now on at the MTC, is a worthy addition to the canon of patriarchal disaster.
|From L: Brian Lipson (Christopher), Julia Grace (Ruth), David Paterson (Daniel) and Luke Watts (Billy) in Tribes. Photo: Jeff Busby|
This family, dominated by their writer father Christopher (Brian Lipson), sets the decibel level at high aggression from the opening moment: their hobby is to be in each other's faces, tearing down each other's achievements. With one exception, they're all masters of the savagely witty putdown; for them, language is not so much a means of communication as a cudgel. They identify each other by their mutual scars, and their wars are the means by which all of them express their mutual dependence. So far, so familiarly neurotic.
In this relentless dojo of wordplay, there is one quiet member. The youngest son, Billy (Luke Watts), is deaf. His parents refuse to acknowledge his deafness as a disability, and he has never learned signing: instead, he is an an adept lip reader, functioning as best he can amid the rapid fire. In fact, despite a palpable loneliness, he seems to function better than his siblings. Daniel (David Paterson) and Ruth (Julia Grace) both have moved back home, bearing the scars of unsuccessful relationships. Daniel is attempting to write a thesis, while Ruth is pursuing her ambition to be an opera singer. Meanwhile, their put-upon mother, Beth (Sarah Peirse), is struggling to write a detective novel in the face of her husband's open scorn.
This map of familial unhappiness permits Raine much more than a display of verbal pyrotechnics, although the fireworks are entertainingly on display. Tribes explores the nature of communication and language - its tyrannies and freedoms, and especially its manifestations beyond the written or spoken word - in song, music and gesture. And, as its title suggests, the play also looks at belonging, that very human urge to identify as part of a tribe, with its own codes and dialects, its own hierarchies and accepted behaviours.
The plates begin to shift when Billy surprises his family by finding a girlfriend, Sylvia (Alison Bell). Sylvia is the daughter of deaf parents, and is presently losing her hearing. While Billy is liberated and excited about learning sign language and identifying as deaf, Sylvia is more sceptical, seeing the deaf community as a microcosm of a flawed society, and she mourns her diminishing world.
Billy has been the lynchpin of the family, its quiet ground: when he identifies as deaf, and suddenly becomes articulate on his own terms, he challenges a core dogma of his father's, who has always maintained that to enter deaf sub-culture and to learn sign language is an admission of defeat and victimhood. When Billy moves out of home, and demands that his family learns to sign, the central certainties of the family, as represented by Christopher, begin to collapse.
After interval the plotting gets rather too frenetic. Things keep happening - Billy gets a job as a forensic lipreader translating security videos for courts, Billy and Sylvia break up, Billy gets into legal trouble himself, Daniel's mental illness degenerates into full-on psychosis, and so on. It culminates in a final scene of reconciliation, witnessed by the family in a kind of frozen frieze, that has a touch of deus ex machina about it. That this is surprisingly effective has a lot more to do with the quality of the performances (and the simple truth that human communication is about a lot more than words) than with the the play itself: and yet it is undeniably moving.
As this somehow unavoidable description of the plot might suggest, Tribes appears to be a straightforward domestic drama, fully dependent on the reveals of action. This isn't the case: it's more an intellectual and poetic argument in disguise, a la Ibsen, for the most part gracefully and intelligently articulated. Raine has a firm hand on her central metaphors, sliding complex abstract questions about language and emotional need unobtrusively into the action.
Raine's script notably exploits the medium of theatre. Above the stage are surtitles, used in a variety of ways - to translate an aria, or sign language, or in a wicked touch, to make subtext explicit. The play opens with the sound of an orchestra tuning up (music, the acme of wordless communication, is a constant theme). And of course there are the gestures of sign language, which are inherently theatrical, and the subtleties of performance itself.
It gives director Julian Meyrick a rich field of play, and he takes full advantage in an admirably detailed production. Stephen Curtis's design sets the domestic scenes in the centre of a cavernous stage stripped to its back walls, which are littered with half-visible suburban detritus. Throughout the play, wooden floors slide open and back, revealing deep, industrial pits below the stage. It creates an increasing sense of fragility, of a family poised above an abyss of uncertainty.
The sense of detail is reinforced by the fine cast, who focus the often disconcertingly swift emotional and intellectual shifts, while creating portraits of compelling realism. Alison Bell is a stand-out in a cast which generously meets the complex challenges of the play. Intelligent and compelling, this is honest theatre, honestly done. More, please.
Tribes by Nina Raine, directed by Julian Meyrick. Set by Stephen Curtis, costumes by Louise McCarthy, lighting by Matt Scott, composition and sound design by Tim Dargaville. With Alison Bell, Julia Grace, Brian Lipson, David Paterson, Sarah Peirse and Luke Watts. Melbourne Theatre Company, Sumner Theatre, until March 14.