Dialogue is merely a tool rather than the essence of playwriting. For proof, audiences need look no further than Nina Raine’s exhilarating “Tribes.” Her family drama features extraordinarily funny, daringly non-PC exchanges and confrontations brimming with truth-telling. But its most eloquent moments are unspoken. Roger Michell’s beautifully sustained direction ensures that abashed silences and the pulse-quickening tension between characters reveal subtext as legible as it is emotionally charged. Raine won several most promising newcomer awards for her debut “Rabbit.” She has now arrived, and then some.
Raine has the pleasing audacity to seduce her audience with what appears to be a smart and loud-mouthed comedy while quietly turning up the dramatic heat to deliver something altogether more troubled.
Billy (Jacob Casselden) is the quiet one in a high-voltage, highly articulate family. Christopher (Stanley Townsend) is the swaggering, academic father married to peacemaker wife Beth (Kika Markham), who is planning her new novel. Their pot-smoking Daniel (Harry Treadaway) willfully thinks he, too, might choose academia (his father argues a career as a stand-up would be better) while daughter Ruth (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is attempting to be an opera-singer, an idea that has got her as far as performing in “Aida” in a pub.
Arguments, in this household, are not only the stuff of life, they’re boisterous, bruising and immensely entertaining as everyone gives as good as they get. Except for Billy who is deaf.
Accomodation is easily and routinely made for his lack of hearing – he has hearing aids and is an uncommonly good lip-reader – but his view of the family and his place within it shifts radically when he starts a relationship with Sylvia (Michelle Terry), who is the daughter of deaf parents and is herself slowly going deaf.
Sylvia’s supreme confidence in both the hearing world and in what Christopher contemptuously labels “the deaf community” is a serious threat to the complacent family structure. And the scene where she is brought home to meet the family is a comic tour de force of embarrassment as high and low status bounces from one character to another.
On the surface, the typically bold dinner-table conversation – and the play as a whole – is predominantly about language. Sylvia is an extremely good signer, a skill Billy’s family has shunned. They want him to be included in the hearing world, not isolated from it. Sylvia’s presence, however, prompts Christopher into an aggressive argument that forces her on to the defensive about whether or not deaf-signing is a lesser version of the spoken word.
Signing, especially in Michelle Terry’s arrestingly unsentimental performance, is almost uniquely theatrical because it creates an engrossing gap between what is being seen and what is being said. That gap is visibly bridgeable, an idea Raine exploits brilliantly.
She uses it as a plot point in the fast-moving second act but also harnesses its expressive power to show Billy and Sylvia’s upsetting emotional trajectories. All this releases the play from even approaching being a single-issue debate drama.
Michell’s direction is like fine tailoring: crucial, structural and almost invisible. Alive to every nuance of the text, he encourages a daring breadth of expression throughout his immaculate cast without ever leading to exaggeration or “directorial underlining.” That degree of clarity is equally controlled by Mark Thompson’s spare design, lit with subtle warmth by Rick Fisher who can pick out a vase of tulips and give it tenderness.
As Billy breaks free of self-imposed constraint, it becomes rivetingly clear that “Tribes” is using the idea of a family endlessly talking but rarely listening as an emotionally resonant metaphor. As the title indicates, Raine is really examining communication and belonging. It would, however, do the play a grave disservice to label it simply as being “about power and identity politics.” Her writing is far too compassionate for that.
Sylvia is inexorably losing her hearing. At the close of the first act, she heartbreakingly plays “Clair de lune” on the piano and silences everyone. She cannot hear it, but the theater fills not just with Debussy’s music but the sound of profoundly satisfying ideas holding an audience in thrall.