At a dinner table, a gang of individuals clash in disagreement. Their cacophony reveals them as a modern family but there’s a barely-suppressed primitivism here, in Nina Raine’s insightful play. Through preaching and mocking, a married couple and two of their children shuffle tribally for authority. A third remains silent.
Because of his deafness, Billy (a wonderful Alex Nowak) is cast by his family as onlooker to their dramas. Christopher, an academic sermonising about exceptionalism, has given his other offspring, Daniel and Ruth, insecurities about their artistic pursuits. He still wishes they’d move out of his house.
When Grainne Keenan’s beleaguered Ruth is forced to defend opera, she states: “You have to follow both the story and the music.” Director Oonagh Murphy’s stylish production for the Gate Theatre adheres to that instruction, embellishing Raine’s drama in its moments of pathos. Observe the poignant arrival of Ivan Birthistle’s baroque music and the considerate surtitles of Conan McIvor’s video design, all for Billy to tell Daniel about his new girlfriend.
Into this den of egoists comes Sylvia (the radiantly humble Clare Dunne), a woman born to deaf parents and slowly going deaf herself. Nick Dunning’s Christopher, determined to pick apart those family ties, bares razor-sharp teeth. His crudeness would overpower the scene if not for the eloquent displays of Sylvia’s sign language. It’s as much a revelation to the audience as to Billy.
The drama turns gradually into a journey towards deaf pride, with its imaginable frustrations. Billy protests against his family’s reliance on lip-reading, leaving his mother (played by dutiful Fiona Bell) plagued by guilt. Less believable are her constant returns to a traditionally matriarchal role; snatching the clothes iron out of someone’s hand is one thing but personally picking a splinter from her grown son’s foot is a bit on the nose.
In its later acts, Raine’s play considers the complexity of otherness but such profound ideas often lack the drama to bind them. We’re distracted instead by Billy’s questionable ethics as a forensic speech reader and the inner voices plaguing Daniel, who has a tendency to blurt out insecurities for no other reason than shunting the plot forward: “Are you getting married?”; “Please don’t take him away from me.” Bravo to Gavin Drea for make these outbursts appear more nuanced than they actually are.
In fact, Murphy’s direction is exceptionally good at suspending such weaknesses, drawing our attention instead to Conor Murphy’s austerely modern design, which alters the character of the overall venue. This sustained look at a marginalised experience is a discovery in itself; I haven’t found that at the Gate Theatre before.
Tribes is on at the Gate Theatre in Dublin until 11 November 2017. Click here for more details.