So here we are. The Gate’s first proper ‘play’ after the immersive Great Gatsby. Tough act to follow. Suffice to say, they’ve nailed it.
Tribes is a wonderful play. Nina Raine’s writing is funny (sometimes gently so, sometimes bitterly so) and devastating, and continues to wrong foot you consistently throughout in subtle ways. When the play begins, the family’s arguing away about frivolous crap in the way only intellectual middle class families can be, with the deaf-from-birth son Billy there as a sort of ornament. Billy’s always lived with the parents, and has never learned sign language, instead getting by on lip reading. Daniel and Ruth, his siblings, have arrived back to live at home to pursue their artistic ambitions. Beth and Christopher, their parents, trade jokes that barely hide the bitterness underneath. They’re playing at being a happy family, back together, and LOOK HOW MUCH FUN THEY’RE HAVING TOGETHER. It seems like the whole thing’s set out. This is going to be a play about Billy finding himself and finding his true Tribe, ostensibly other deaf people, and escaping his shitty family. There’s something almost cartoonish about how awful the family appears, particularly
Christopher(sidebar: Nick Dunning is just the best at playing awful boorish fathers. GOD this reviewer loves watching him.).
And then Sylvia arrives (played beautifully by Clare Dunne); a young woman, raised by a deaf family, in the process of going deaf herself, who teaches Billy sign language, introduces him to other deaf people… so far, so psychodrama. But I’m going to try to avoid giving away how Tribes avoids those expected plot beats. And Alex Nowak, as Billy, is an absolute treat to watch; him and Dunne’s performances change and develop wonderfully as the relationship their characters does. He seems like a thoughtful odd one out, but as the play progresses, we see just how much like the rest of the family he is. And how much they are like him, feeling adrift, alone and unsure.
The play, indeed, isn’t just about Billy, it’s about the family as a whole and how Billy’s arc affects them in profound ways. Gavin Drea, as Billy’s brother Daniel, is especially astonishing. In the early scenes, he seems like a typical pretentious, petulant manchild. But the more we see about him, the more we discover about what’s going on under the hood (fear of being a failure, comparing himself to his suddenly-successful brother, the inner voices constantly putting him down), the more he starts to relapse into old issues from childhood. It’s devastating to watch. There were so many moments where Daniel would open up, talking about the constant inner monologue, and this reviewer felt a really keen twinge of recognition. We don’t get to see as much of Ruth compared to Daniel, but Gráinne Keenan makes it count, both settled and just about ready to shake apart underneath. Fiona Bell, as Beth, is also perfectly pitched as a posh weapon of a woman whose attempts to understand Billy are heartbreaking to watch.
It’s weird seeing the Gate this stripped back too; Conor Murphy’s expressionistic set, Ivan Birthistle’s sound design, and Conan McIvor’s phalanx of screens (used for mood lighting, subtitles, and more) make the stage seem at odds with the ballroom look of the Gate’s auditiorium. But it works. Oonagh Murphy’s direction and Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting design create some incredibly striking images throughout.
It’s a great script, with a great cast, polished to a sheen. So, it’s a Gate show. And I mean that in the best possible way.