On one level, it is a study in a functional family made up of dysfunctional individuals. On another, it's about being deaf and going deaf, and how those are not the same experience. And as the title suggests, it explores the ways in which every group, from family to friends to political movement, is a tribe with its own rituals, values and demands of loyalty.
We are introduced first to the sort of family for whom shouting, arguing and trading witty insults are normal and in no way unloving dinner conversation. Only gradually will we discover that each member of this rather entertaining crew is damaged or limited in some deep way. Father is an intellectual bully, mother a blocked writer, adult daughter desperate for a man, adult son fighting the voices in his head telling him he's worthless.
The only quiet one at the table is the second son, deaf since birth though adept at reading lips. In the course of the play he will meet a girl who is going deaf, and their romance will be threatened by the discovery that they have less in common than might first appear, her deep distress being something he's never had to share.
But through her he will meet the wider deaf community, and begin to question whether there is more tying him to that tribe than to the one he was born into.
You can see the potential power in those stories, but also the unlikelihood of being able to squeeze them all - I've actually left out a few sub-themes - into one short play.
So the power of Tribes lies in parts rather than the whole - in the moments of discovery of the family members' individual pains, in our hopes for the lovers and the way the playwright convinces us that they must be dashed, in the scene in which the deaf lad announces that he's switching loyalty to his new tribe and the family's inability to comprehend this, and in the ways each of these will remain and resonate in our thinking after the show.
Roger Michell's direction smoothes over some of the seams between the play's various pieces, though an authorial device of providing projected surtitles for some spoken and signed dialogue proves difficult to synchronise and integrate into the play's reality successfully.
In a uniformly strong cast Jacob Casselden and Michelle Terry as the lovers stand out, not least for the technical accomplishment of capturing the sound of deaf voices and frequently signing as well as speaking.
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- Tribes - Royal Court 2010