Tribes review: How to find a family you belong to

Everybody is talking but nobody is listening in Nina Raine’s intelligent, furious play

Clare Dunne (Sylvia), Alex Kowak (Billy) and Fiona Bell (Beth) in Tribes at the Gate Theatre

Clare Dunne (Sylvia), Alex Kowak (Billy) and Fiona Bell (Beth) in Tribes at the Gate Theatre

 

Gate Theatre

****

“If you’re going to argue, slow down,” advises Beth, the mother of an eruptive family that is forever arguing and rarely slowing down. The advice is practical. The youngest of the family, Billy (Alex Nowak), is deaf, struggling to decipher the din among an implacable academic father (Nick Dunning’s overbearing Christopher), a distracted novelist mother (Fiona Bell’s endearing Beth), a sardonic academic brother (Gavin Drea’s tormented Daniel) and a high-strung singer sister (Grainne Keenan’s self-abasing Ruth). It is an idiosyncratic family: part Chekhov play, part Puccini opera, all noise.

Given a commanding and absorbing production by director Oonagh Murphy, Nina Raine’s 2010 play creates an atmosphere that is both energetic and exhausting. “Why can’t you move a step without an argument starting in this house?” asks an exasperated Bell. “Because, we love each other,” protests Christopher. It is a smothering kind of love, in which everyone vies for attention and no one actually gives it, propounding views on life, love and art that barrack the world into black and white.

That makes the arrival of Clare Dunne’s Sylvia, a blaze of red against the sheeny black set and monochrome costumes of Conor Murphy’s design, all the more striking. As Billy’s new girlfriend, she is fluent in sign language and losing her hearing, inducted into this tribe over a bruising family dinner that asks her to defend a language, and a mindset, that transcends words. For Daniel, though, Sylvia threatens to take away his one calm support.

Murphy is alive to the roiling psychodynamics of an unhappy family unhappy in its own way. The production begins with the sound of an orchestra tuning up, a gesture to their performance of harmony and dissonance. Raine’s drama, moreover, is a play of voices: Nowak’s will break and distort, Drea is assailed by auditory hallucinations, and in Dunne’s exceptionally well judged performance, Sylvia’s is transforming into something uncomfortably new.

The production is most affecting in its considered, stilled moments: Billy sitting isolated from the family drama; Sylvia’s faltering piano gradually weaving a charm; or surtitles that convey the private confidences of signed conversations and, at one enlivening point, even exasperated thoughts: “We’re in a Pinter play,” winces Christopher.

In Raine’s exploration of hierarchies, whether in families or universities, among “creatives” or the deaf, the underlying question is about the quality of listening. (In one gorgeously throw-away moment, Keenan’s overshadowed Ruth feels like “a fucking bonsai tree”, and nods at the apt simile, as though she is her only audience.) But the thrust of the play is more quietly hopeful: if we can find some space away from the noise, we will discover where we really belong.

Runs until Nov 11