Directed by Susanna Dowling
78 McDougall Street, Kirribilli
Season: 26 May – 2 July
We are a people who move in tribes. These tribes are comprised of groups of individuals who validate each other’s life philosophy and choices. We may think we speak our own individual thoughts, but it is more likely this voice is a cumulative product of our specific tribal perspective. In Ensemble Theatre’s production of Tribes, we see these groups emerge in accordance with family, occupation, and ability, to name a few, and observe how a person’s sense of belonging to a group can allow them to fully realise their own voice. The play, directed by Susanna Dowling, is powerful and enlightening, as audiences are made privy to the theatrical poetry of human connection and understanding.
Nina Raine’s play takes place primarily around the family dining room table, aptly setting the focus on family. I have seen the word “dysfunctional” being used to describe the family in the play, but I don’t think it’s a useful descriptor. What does that even mean? What defines a “functional” family? They are fiercely intelligent and love each other dearly (even if they express this in unconventional ways), and yet of course aren’t without their faults. Christopher and Beth have three kids: Daniel, Ruth and Billy. Daniel is an aspiring academic, Ruth an aspiring opera singer and Billy is deaf – he is seemingly defined by his disability, not wholly included in the colourful family conversations because they speak too quickly for him to lip read. That is, until his new friend, Sylvia, who is losing her hearing, introduces him to broader horizons.
Notably, Billy is played by Luke Watts who is deaf, and Sylvia is played by Ana Maria Belo who has also experienced hearing loss. This casting decision brings such integrity to the performances of Billy and Sylvia; it is the perfect choice. The relationships of the family as a whole wonderfully interweave each part to make a whole, with such authentic dynamics I felt as if a family I know personally had been thrust onto the stage. Sean O’Shea plays Christopher with uproarious political incorrectness and Genevieve Lemon holds down the fort as Beth, equally as amusing, but you don’t know how the family would survive without her. Watching Belo respond as Sylvia to such intelligent ignorance (there’s an oxymoron for you) was heartening. She stands her ground against Christopher’s egotism and attitude, which is emblematic of society’s treatment of people who are deaf and have hearing impairment as second-class citizens. Knowing that such attitudes persist, even amongst rational, capable people, is so sad. Yet this is the power of theatre – to make people think, and rethink, and hopefully foster more open understanding. Use of Auslan sign (with electronic captions on the screen behind) occasionally throughout the performance was so awesome to see on stage, especially given its rarity in theatre.
I found the relationship between Daniel and Billy to be intriguing, fraught with possessiveness, irreverence, and yet abounding with love. To see Billy reach new heights and find his voice with confidence as Daniel simultaneously meets his sad demise was curious. Garth Holcombe achieves a feat of likeability and garnering audience sympathy as Daniel, in spite of his brash and selfish behaviour. He is human, after all, multifaceted and vastly complex.
Ultimately we see a story of reconciliation and burgeoning understanding. There is a pattern in our society of privileged people imposing their beliefs and solutions on disadvantaged people – be this through race, gender, sexuality, class, or ability. If only we all stopped to listen – and I mean, actually listen – voices from tribes across the plane could fully emerge, for the better.