Deafness is a terrifying subject for a stage or a screen production. It blows apart the most fundamental and unquestioned assumption ever made by anyone who has written dialogue. The assumption that all characters hear everything, the first time, and every time.
Tribes did slip up here. But to dismiss
Tribes for these reasons would do it a monstrous injustice. This play is compelling and utterly authentic in its revelations of some of the numerous collisions between those who hear and those who occasionally snatch a word here or there in the verbal snowstorm of many people talking.
Tribes is a family of Christopher and Ruth (Brian Lipson, Julia Grace) and their two sons and daughter. One of the sons Billy (Luke Watts), who is deaf, acquires a girlfriend Sylvia (Alison Bell), who is also deaf. Sylvia's obvious connection with the deaf community sets off a chain reaction in Billy's attitudes to his family.
The opening scene is memorable. With his stillness and stocky build, Billy resembles a rock. He presides in lofty serenity at one end of the dinner table, while all about him his family indulges in conversations of putdowns, shouting and attention-seeking.
His first spoken line is,
What are you talking about? No family member tries to answer this other than in the most general way. But Billy hammers this question and the massive elephant in the room it represents: exclusion, allowing
Tribes to draw out its theme of how we take refuge in groups.
The most obnoxious character is one of the more important. The father Christopher is strident and aggressive. He demands answers to all the questions hearing audiences politely want to ask fronting up for Deafness 101. This gives
Tribes an entertaining educational twang, and it doesn't matter that answers might be obscure.
Billy's sudden transformation into radical deafdom, when he refuses to speak unless his family agrees to learn to sign, is glib but serves several purposes. It contrasts with Sylvia's looming disengagement, and sets up Billy for the enormous risk of losing his family. This is when the family realises how important he is. He is almost the rock upon which the family has built its church.
Billy's job as a lipreader at first seems to entrench the popular myth of lipreading as a superhuman power possessed by an esoteric order of the deaf. The exposure of Billy's duplicity in pretending to lipread when he can't is a brilliant way to puncture such a myth. It is another example of the way "Tribes" hints at the multiple hidden nuances and paradoxes of deafness.
The most disappointing aspect of
Tribes is its twee and unconvincing ending. It is as though the writer, Nina Raine, thought, this is getting too big and going too far, and felt compelled to chop it all off and flourish something palatable for hearing audiences.
It's the easiest gig in town for hearing people to learn the sweet little sign for love, as Dan does for his brother. It's a lot harder for hearing people to accept Deaf people for who they are. This means respecting the Deaf person's own choices and decisions about deafness and what it means for them. It's a long stretch to imagine that happening in the
The performance I attended was a revelation for another reason. In the past, to make any sense of live theatre, I resembled a Hindu deity with multiple arms. I needed one arm to hold open a tightly bound script, another to manipulate a torch, another to hold a scarf over the torch to dull the light and another to hold my place in the script while studying the stage action. After losing the plot in the first five minutes a final set of arms were needed to shove the whole mess under the seat.
Tribes. The stage featured two flat screens set up high on either side of the stage. These reproduced the script, with different colours for different characters. This was captioned theatre, just one of the Melbourne Theatre Company's impressive facilities and services to make live theatre accessible to everyone. It was simple, blissful and exactly right. That hapless Hindu deity has now become a good drinking story.
Tribes neither demonises hearing people nor presents deaf people as saintly sufferers patiently awaiting their reward in the kingdom of the hearing. It dodges cliché and stereotype by placing deafness in the context of family, of community and personal journeys.
The play takes on too much, and not all will agree with what it does present. Any dramatist brave enough to tackle deafness will never please everyone. But "Tribes" has a vigorous go, ties it to some universal themes, and by doing so, gives us entertaining and insightful theatre.
Tribes is playing at the MTC until March 14.