Tribes – heartfelt and honest

Heartfelt and honest performances from a wonderful cast are reason enough to see the MTC’s Tribes.

Tribes, MTC
Alison Bell, Julia Grace, David Paterson. Photo by Jeff Busby.

With three extravert, attention-seeking adult children living with their over-achieving parents, there’s rarely a quiet moment in this house. Dad (Brian Lipson) is a writer and a never-wrong academic, Mum (Sarah Peirse) is trying to write a detective novel, daughter (Julia Grace) is trying to be an opera singer and son 1 (David Paterson) is working on a thesis. It’d be a bohemian middle class paradise, if it weren’t for the constant arguing. The only one who misses out on a daily tiff is son 2, Billy, (Luke Watts), who’s deaf.

When Billy meets Sylvia (Alison Bell), his view of his family and his place in our hearing-centric society changes. Sylvia has deaf parents and was brought up with Sign as her first language. She works for a deaf events company and is gradually losing her hearing and her connection to the non-deaf world. As Billy learns Sign and meets a community he’d avoid in an attempt to be normal, he sees how much he has missed and how much his deafness is seen as the centre of his personality.

The dynamic and internal-rules of family life are captured perfectly and it’s an awkward joy to watch them argue over the likes of orange juice or if it’s Wagner or Terry Pratchett. Lipson and Peirse are especially irresistible as a couple who show their deep love through fighting, and Bell brings the inner hell and dilemma of her character into every moment of Sylvia’s smiling politeness.

British writer Nina Raine’s script soars when we’re caught in the emotions and dilemmas of these complex people, but, as Billy and Sylvia force change, the metaphorical and literal deafness begins to dominate and the author’s voice butts in to lecture.

Sign is as complex as any other language, the Deaf community is as hierarchical and inbred as the thearte community and society generally isn’t brilliant at dealing with people with different abilities. It’s wonderful that often un-spoken issues are the base of a story, but they’d be as clear without the rhetoric and ongoing metaphors, which would let the story and its characters more free to grab us by our hearts.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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