By Nina Raine; Directed by Shane Bosher
Presented by Silo Theatre
Maidment Theatre, Auckland | June 7-30
Walking out of Tribes, I was at a loss to describe how I felt. It had ticked all the boxes for what I want in a play: fun, intelligence, and pace. But it also exceeded all my expectations. It’s incredibly fun, it’s incredibly intelligent, and it’s extremely fast-paced. It’s not only a great theatre experience; it’s a necessary one.
On the surface, Tribes is about Billy (Leon Wadham), a boy who was born deaf, and his argumentative, intellectual, and inevitably troubled family. The family consists of his super-judgmental and educated father Christopher (Michael Hurst), his late-in-life novelist mother Beth (Catherine Wilkin), his wannabe opera singer sister Ruth (Fern Sutherland), and his quarter-life-crisis afflicted brother Dan (Emmett Skilton). All these characters together in one space is affecting on its own, however Tribes is not only interested in this family, but in language, and specifically the unique language that families, groups of people, and tribes use to communicate with each other, and how these languages can also be isolating.
A key part of the plot, and Billy’s character and relationship with his family, is their decision not to learn sign language, and also not to teach him how to sign. His only means of keeping in the conversation with his family, and the outside world, is by lip-reading. Tribes beautifully details—with some ace use of projection of unspoken dialogue—how important language is to us as people; it keeps us involved in our communities, and it also keeps us apart from other communities. The reasons for the family not teaching Billy how to sign are heartbreaking, but also understandable from their point of view: it would limit his community to only people who speak sign, and make him abnormal. Thus, matters are complicated when Billy gets a partially-deaf girlfriend Sylvia (Jodie Hillock), who he learns sign with. The family is shocked, and it’s here where the play really interrogates the concept of a family—or a tribe—and what keeps them together and keeps them apart.
I can’t stress this enough: Tribes is a complex, intelligent, and moving play that also manages to be a lot of fun. Barbs are traded between the characters, there’s a lot of visual humour with the sign language, and the pace is always kept up. It’s not a play that holds itself above the audience; it involves the audience with humour and a super-engaging cast, and allows the themes to wash over them.
Speaking of the cast, it’s hard for me to start praising them without wanting to spend a hundred words or more on each. In many other plays, a performance of the calibre of any one member in this ensemble would be a standout. Every actor is outstanding, and the ensemble works exceptionally together as a family; their body language and rhythms of speaking so in tune with each other. You get a sense of Billy right away as Leon Wadham looks shyly from person to person in his family, and you get a perfect sense of the exasperation he feels with not being able to communicate on an even level with any of them. Michael Hurst’s Christopher and Catherine Wilkin’s Beth make a suitable married couple, two people who clearly love each other and love their family, but have their idiosyncratic ways of showing it. There’s something endearingly childlike about both of their physicalities—they’re like hyper-articulate, angry teenagers. Fern Sutherland and Emmett Skilton make great impressions as warring siblings Ruth and Daniel, getting across years of petty rivalry and grudges in a hilarious series of back and forths. Sutherland perfectly conveys Ruth’s willingness to help Billy, even as she truly doesn’t understand what’s going on in his head, while Skilton embodies the implosive self-loathing of a quarter-life-crisis with his six-foot-everything frame, and in a late development, gives the most convincing portrayal of an affliction I’ve yet to see on stage or screen. Finally, as Billy’s girlfriend, Jodie Hillock is flat-out brilliant. Her Sylvia is a character constantly in movement, going deaf, and moving from being okay with it to being totally afraid of it. She lends Sylvia a credible fire and anger in her scenes with the family. She’s not a character to be walked over, but it’s her shaking fear in her later scenes that is more affecting. All in all, it’s an incredible cast, and as strong an ensemble as I’ve witnessed in a long time.
The rest of the production supports the cast terrifically. It’s a credit to Shane Bosher’s subtle direction that the play is allowed to bloom and grow on the audience naturally, and every stylistic stroke is important. From the subtle, elegant use of projection, to the clever song choices and to the naturalistic, highly detailed set—it’s a handsomely designed production, and one that isn’t showy but exists to support the cast and script.
Honestly, just go see Tribes. It’s more than a great play; it’s one that interrogates universal human concepts like language and family, and doesn’t feel the need to spoon-feed the audience answers, but let them answer it for themselves. Intelligent, fun, emotionally engaging. See it, y’all.