Billy, centre, and his eccentric family in Tribes

 18 April 2013

It’s a play about families, really. About love and belonging. About language, communication and miscommunication. We all belong to a family, whatever we think of them. And in this case, the family that Deaf character Billy belongs to is, well, pretty stuffed up. Last night, I saw “Tribes”, a play by Nina Raine, on at Circa Theatre in Wellington until 4 May. I loved it: it’s absorbing, intelligent and funny. And the actors are uniformly fantastic. I think it's the strength of the acting that made me cry a couple of times.

Daniel and Billy in TribesBilly (played by Paul Waggott) was born Deaf and grows up in an eccentric, opininated, middle-class London family, where emotional pain rumbles beneath the surface banter. The father is a retired academic and writer, the mother (played by Emma Kinane) is writing a detective novel, son Daniel (played by Nathan Meister) has just written a thesis about language, and daughter Ruth (played by Jessica Robinson) is an aspiring opera singer.

When Billy meets Sylvia (played by Erin Banks), his world opens up and he joins a new family – the Deaf community – and rejects his old family because they don’t make any effort to enter into his new world and learn sign language.

Sylvia, on the other hand, is hearing but has grown up signing because both her parents are Deaf. Although she lives in both worlds, she is gradually losing her hearing – as did her brother. And while Billy rejoices in his new “family”, Sylvia is scared and sad at her approaching loss of hearing.

Sylvia and Billy in TribesSo the play’s not black and white, good versus evil stuff. There’s a sign-interpreted performance on Friday 3 May. I’d love to know what Deaf audiences members think of this portrayal of their world. I hope lots of people from the Deaf community in Wellington get to the show – and for hearing patrons, I reckon going to the signed performance will be a bonus.

There’s a really interesting YouTube clip in which a couple – he was born Deaf, she’s Deaf but was born hearing – review the play after they see a captioned performance at the Royal Court Theatre in London. They helped the playwright with her research and before the performance, they're nervous about what the play will reveal. Has she simply taken their lives and put them on to the stage? Or is this a situation that speaks to us all?


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