Tribes | Melbourne Theatre CompanyLeft – Alison Bell and Luke Watts. Cover – (l-r) Brian Lipson, Julia Grace, David Paterson and Luke Watts. Photos – Jeff Busby

Tribes may at first seem a strange name for a family drama, seeming instead to suggest the over-heated rivalries of football or politics. Yet while this drama from British playwright Nina Raine may take place within the confines of a living room, group identity is a presiding theme.

The story focuses on a young Deaf man, Billy – played by genuinely hearing-impaired actor Luke Watts – who lives with his constantly squabbling family. Raised by his ideological parents not to see his deafness as a defining part of his identity, Billy has little contact with the deaf community. An expert lip-reader, he’s never even learnt to sign. When he meets Sylvia (Alison Bell), a girl born to deaf parents who is starting to lose her own hearing, this changes. So, inevitably, does Billy’s sense of self, as he identifies further with the deaf world. At the same time, Sylvia, terrified by her impending deafness, increasingly attaches to Billy’s hearing family.

Tribes is a drama about belonging and exclusion, in particular about feeling excluded from groups that seem you should naturally belong to. Like your own family.

Communication gaps of all types are under the spotlight, as characters struggle to express, receive or interpret messages. Billy’s family all have communications issues of their own, whether it’s his sister (Julia Grace) failing to find her voice as an artist, his mother’s (Sarah Peirse) ailing novel or his fiercely intellectual father’s (Brian Lipson) unwillingness to listen to others. In contrast to the deaf characters, Billy’s brother Dan (David Paterson), grappling with mental illness, hears voices that no one else can, placing him at the seeming opposite end of the spectrum of auditory perception.

Performed in both spoken English and sign language, the play earned itself a Laurence Oliver award after it premiered in London in 2010. Director Julian Meyrick has done a stellar job of staging it for MTC.

The living room set that is the centre of the action occupies a small well-lit pocket in the middle of a shadowy open stage. The significance of this staging – the familiar, if at times lonely, at times crowded, ring of light – becomes more evident as the play’s themes of tribalism develop. Lighting cues are effectively used, while the overhead screen for sub-titling the sign language is also creatively employed to add visual effects.

If there’s any weakness to it, it’s that Raine has crammed the second act with a few too many dramatic stake raises, so that the sequence of events starts to strain credibility, without necessarily adding to the already powerful emotional impact. There is no faulting this production of it however and the cast is a tight ensemble, delivering six top notch performances. Alison Bell as Sylvia, in particular, commands absolute attention, whether she’s speaking or signing.

As MTC's second offering for 2012, this compelling show augurs well for the season ahead. If the company continues to produce drama of this calibre, then it will surely see its own tribe of fans grow.

Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Nina Raine

Director Julian Meyrick

Venue: MTC Theatre, Sumner | 140 Southbank Blvd, Southbank VIC
Dates: 4 February – 14 March, 2012
Bookings: | 03 8688 0800

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