Attempting to excuse her son’s patchy thesis, mother Beth suggests to her husband, Christopher, ‘He’s just trying to find his voice.’ Intellectual Chris fires back the lightning bolt reply: ‘Well, he’s not writing in the right language.’ This two-line exchange is the fulcrum around which Nina Raine’s play, Tribe, revolves. It is a beautifully constructed piece, which looks at language and belonging and the mutual sense of inclusion and exclusion that families – and indeed any tribe – provide. It is about the desire to stand out and yet conform; the drive one has to live up to one’s family but also live beyond it; and the mutual protection and exposure that family love provides.
Raine has created a zeitgeist family that embodies and reflects the modern-day milieu, almost without trying. It is with the tiny verbal and physical details, the sharply observed asides and tics (Roger Michell directs with excellent precision), that Raine sketches out her backdrop. One of the first remarks from father Christopher (Stanley Townsend) is an acerbic response to a pasta dish: ‘It’s like being fucked in the face by a crab.’ Townsend could have been painted for this role – he has a belligerent glint in his eye - and his casually corrosive comment establishes this as an honest and combative family: one that offers ‘abusive love’ rather than easy comfort.
Christopher is, as his daughter Ruth comments, a ‘whore for words’. This obsession with language has filtered down to his children and makes for a smart and sparkling script. Son, Daniel, sneeringly refers to his sister Ruth as ‘enamelled with triumph’ and Ruth despairingly alludes to herself as a ‘Bonzai tree’. They are unlikely but brilliantly striking phrases, which slide delicately from the characters mouths and cement the idea of a highly self-conscious, intellectually aware and edgy, even vicious, modern-day family.
The only character who stands out (he is isolated on the side of the stage for significant periods of time) in this not-so-cosy environment is deaf son, Billy (Jacob Casselden). This disabled son is a brilliant character and conceit from Raine, which allows her fluidly to explore central themes, such as communication (Billy to his family: ‘You only hear me when I’m not talking.’), and also exposes chinks in this tough-talking family’s armour. Billy (Casselden is proud, tough and fragile) allows us to glimpse the heart pounding beneath his family’s sometimes hollow hollering.
There is a dazzling scene shortly before the interval, when Billy’s new girlfriend, Sylvia, (who is gradually becoming deaf) visits and is confronted with the family’s battering questions. Christopher, seated in the middle of the table and spreading ripples of tension around every corner, probes Sylvia about communication within the deaf community. Surely, he argues, there is a simplicity to sign language that encourages a relatively simplistic outlook on life? In other words: does being deaf make one stupid?
Christopher challenges Sylvia (played by Michelle Terry, who could move tides with the emotions she generates on stage) to translate anything he says and she gamely accepts. A hush finally falls around the table and Sylvia puts on an extraordinary show. Every cynical phrase from Christopher becomes a gentle, incredibly complex and achingly expressive sign in the hands and fingers of Sylvia. It is a scene that not only symbolises love’s ability to open up new channels of communication but also emphasises theatre’s ability to translate words on a number of different levels. Raine ends the scene with Sylvia and the family behind a screen, listening to music that, for Billy, is ‘interference’ but for everyone else is something magical. She notches up the level of symbolism once more, allowing the stage to spell out the veil that exists between Billy and his family – and even his lover.
The themes and their symbolic representation, which so beautifully underpin the play’s first half, risk dragging things down in the second act. As is so often the case with young(er) writers, Raine pushes her delicate characters one notch too far and tries to force her ideas into a neat conclusion, which feels unnecessary.
Daniel’s story feels particularly overstretched, and Harry Treadaway is burdened with enacting a heady transition from surly son to a stuttering, weed-induced paranoid wreck. Fortunately, Treadaway manages to hold onto the reality of his role. Though he almost always plays edgy characters, he never blunts these edges by pushing too hard with his performances. In a final scene between Daniel and Billy, Daniel asks his brother for the symbol for love. It could have been a horrendously cheesy moment (‘the only universal method of communication is love’) but Tribes is a candid and hard-edged play, which has earned this rare moment of inspirational warmth and hope.
Till 15 November 2010