Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Monday 16 July 2018

Ingenious play a sign of the times

Sound pairing: Dunne and Nowak play Sylvia and Billy in Tribes
Sound pairing: Dunne and Nowak play Sylvia and Billy in Tribes

Nina Raine's 2010 play shines like a beacon of first-rate writing for the stage. It opened in London's Royal Court and has since been produced all over the world. Tribes is a family drama, full of humour, with much of the action centred round the dinner table.

Christopher, an academic, and Beth, a novelist with a late vocation, have three adult children. Their son Billy, who is deaf, has always lived at home. Their other son Daniel, a PhD candidate, and their aspirant opera singer daughter Ruth, have recently returned to the nest. Under the influence of his strong-minded father, Billy has been reared to lip-read and speak, and has not been encouraged to learn sign language and fraternise with members of the deaf community. It is Christopher's way of denying his son's disability: "Making deafness the centre of your identity is the beginning of the end."

Billy brings home a girlfriend, Sylvia, who is from a deaf family and is herself going deaf. She teaches Billy to communicate in sign, thus opening up a whole new world for him. This development causes considerable conflict with his family.

To describe the action thus is technically correct, but it only captures a small portion of what the play is about. At its centre is a concern with language in all its forms. The soprano daughter brings the emotional communication of opera music to the story. The PhD candidate son hears voices in his head. Tribes' most clear theatrical affinity is with the work of Brian Friel, with its use of ingenious theatrical devices and its profound concern with language.

Some of the play is delivered in sign language, with surtitles translating. There is occasional subtext printed on the screens, showing the character's thoughts. Bits of opera text also appear.

Nick Dunning is full of fulminating charisma as the dominant father who sucks all the oxygen out of the air. Fiona Bell is sweet as the mother trying to create space for herself amongst the histrionics of her high-strung brood. Gráinne Keenan as Ruth is a perfect slave to the vulnerabilities of egotism and Gavin Drea's Daniel utterly convinces us that he is hearing voices. Alex Nowak as Billy dominates proceedings as he carries the crux of the play with his intense emotional build. Clare Dunne, deafly speaking far too loudly, deftly steals the show.

Director Oonagh Murphy strikes every important note in this complex work, maintaining perfect clarity and communication. Everything is perfectly signed. Conor Murphy's set and costumes are slick and flash, using colour and its absence to excellent effect.

This is a brilliant and funny play getting a fine-tuned outing, perfect for an audience seeking a theatrical mirror for the here and now. Not to be missed.


A terrific character stuck in the past

Katy Hayes

Review: King of the Castle, Gaiety Theatre

Until Oct 15

Scober MacAdam, the king of the title, is a superb invention by writer Eugene McCabe. He’s an ambitious businessman-farmer who feels superior to everyone as he voraciously buys up the land his neighbours cannot maintain. He has acquired the local big house to install his beautiful young wife in.

“A man’s got to fight to keep his name on the mountain,” he says repeatedly. But Scober has no child; his wife Tessa, played by Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope star Seána Kerslake, is 30 years his junior and no baby is forthcoming. He takes the practical view of a farmer: the land needs to be ploughed, and if he’s not up to the job himself, he can hire a younger man.

This triangular drama plays out against a backdrop of Irish begrudgery, where Scober — who was “in rags at school with all of them” — must be punished for bettering himself. Seán McGinley’s Scober begins in a low key as he quietly receives barbs from his workmen when they eat food at his table. But this performance builds to a pitch of intensity and McGinley is terrific as this complex man. Marty Rea turns in a beautifully judged Jemmy Maguire, Scober’s tormentor-in-chief, as he peers from under his cap with pure badness in mind.

The production is splendid, with great archetypal shapes made from machinery and furniture. Design by Francis O’Connor is full of drama; a long table and 11 chairs are flown in and out. Stephen McKeon’s musical compositions add to the epic feel.

McCabe can certainly write lines, brilliant briary ones that make a vicious cut, full of clever double meaning. He can also write scenes tremendously well. Director Garry Hynes for Druid achieves a strong, stern feel, capturing this Irish machismo that is tied up with the land and the farm. But structurally the play peters out towards the end. We don’t get a proper pay-off and the ending feels like it needs another scene.

When this play premiered in 1964 at the Dublin Theatre Festival, its stud-farm plot would have been a shocker in conservative Catholic Ireland. Even 30 years ago, that theme had a bit of punch.

But now, with the audacity well worn off, the structural flaws are more apparent, and the play feels very rooted in the past.

Book it now


Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, Oct 17 – 21

A tribute to the legendary Billie Barry, who trained legions of Irish kids for careers on the stage — and especially in musical theatre.


National Opera House, Wexford , Oct 19 — Nov 4

Wexford Festival Opera opens with Luigi Cherubini’s opera comique from 1797, based on Euripides’ tragedy. Stage legend Fiona Shaw directs.


Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, Oct 20

Smashing Times present these stories of extraordinary Irish and international women involved in WW2. Post-show discussion. On tour.

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