Tribes at Royal Court

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Last night we went to see Tribes (written by Nina RaineCraig Raine‘s daughter) at the Royal Court. I was glad to finally get a chance to go to this near-legendary theatre, which is a leading spot for new work in London. The building itself is quite lovely and has a slight warehouse feel but with dark wood and leather throughout, which makes it very comfortable. There are great sight lines even from the top of the balcony, which made the £12 we paid for a ticket excellent value, especially compared to the West End. The downstairs bar would be great if you have a table but instead we decided to kill time by walking around Chelsea, which is absolutely lovely with all the Christmas decorations up.

Tribes is a family drama that explores the relationship between language, meaning and reality. The main conflict arises from the fact that although most of the family is linguistically adept (they are always engaged in egocentric arguments), one of the three grown-up children, Billy, is deaf (played by Jacob Casselden, who is himself deaf) and is therefore partially excluded from all the conversation. This is especially the case since the father (Stanley Townsend) is a literary critic and academic, one son, Daniel (Harry Treadaway) is writing a PhD thesis in linguistic philosophy and the mother (Kika Markham) is a budding novelist writing a detective novel and many of the conversations thus have elevated topics which the family does not wish to constantly summarise for the benefit of the deaf son/brother. Billy eventually starts a relationship with Sylvia (Michelle Terry), a woman who is from a deaf family and is losing her hearing (she wasn’t born deaf). He finds a stronger connection with her and the deaf community than with his own family. This leads to a conflict between the ‘tribes’ of the title. In one climatic scene, the deaf son demands that his family learn sign language on the grounds that they have never made a true attempt to communicate with him, while he has learnt to read lips and speak.
The first act, which explores the relationship between the family members and their passionate arguments was great fun. However, the second act felt episodic and like it was rushing through a number of plot points. The dysfunction of the family which was so enjoyable in the first act became a bit trying as every character is saddled with a number of problems which dragged the momentum of the play down.
Tribes

Still, for me, some of the themes in the play were interesting. For example, the classic linguistic argument that language creates meaning and reality (“How can you feel a feeling unless you have the word for it?”). There was also a discussion about whether the straightforward nature of sign language necessarily makes the users more blunt and less nuanced people, an argument which is put forward by the literary critic father. This assertion is challenged when one of the characters asks whether it is possible to translate poetry into sign language, and the deaf girlfriend provides a series of convincing and heart-felt signs which seem to capture the feeling of the poem perfectly. This worked nicely as theatre as sign language, spoken words and subtitles blended to add energy to what might have been a relatively staid conversation if only one form of communication was used. Also, the daughter in the family, Ruth (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), is an aspiring opera singer and the play explores the emotional truth of music versus the more literal interpretation provided by words.

Despite raising a number of interesting issues, however, I don’t feel the themes were entirely worked out within the play and at times felt muddled. Still, I suppose this ambiguity is better than a didactic and black-and-white exploration of the subject matter. All in all, an enjoyable night, and if the second act was as good as the first, it would have been a solid four-star performance for me.

A shorter version of this review appears here
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