Tribes by Nina Raine at the Dublin Theatre Festival

Nina Raine’s play Tribes is superb. Centring on the problems of relationships within a family, particularly between a profoundly deaf individual, his siblings and his parents, it is, on one level, a piece about the nature and problems of communication. The opening scene set around the dinner table presents a typical picture of bickering, point-scoring, jocular but also aggressive banter, as each member of the family needs to impose on others as self-justification. Enter the deaf son, and the tone alters; now it is a question of finding the mode of communication which can best express their love of, and concern for, him. But is there not something patronising in this? Does it not risk labelling him primarily in terms of his deafness, so that that becomes the dominant factor in the relationship?

Then there is the issue of how communication should take place. There is an assumption that he should function as much as possible in their world: learn to lip-read; speak their language. But why should they not move into his territory, the better to understand him and live in his world? For example, by learning sign language?

While these themes are worked out within the family, through powerful dramatic encounters, so the play develops into a much broader exploration of identity and community; hence its title. Is a deaf person primarily to be categorised as belonging to a group of deaf people and thus to be treated differently from those who are not deaf? And does the same go for Northerners, the Irish, Muslims, Jews? The forms of identification, the modes of communication, involve assumptions of power and domination; in short, the dinner table struggles writ large.

All of this is brilliantly presented in Oonagh Murphy’s production at the Gate Theatre, part of this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival. There is a satisfying pace to the proceedings, at times frenetic, at times leisurely and reflective. There is a steady heightening of the emotional temperature, leading to a climax of almost unbearable intensity. The use of video (designer Conan McIvor), so often an unnecessary and distracting addition to the visual dimension, here plays a role of fundamental importance, not only because it enables the audience to enter into the minds of the protagonists though, for example, dislocating images of, their past and present, but also because, through surtitles, it is itself a means of communication. Through guesswork, deaf people have to fill in the gaps of what they see to make sense of it. As the surtitles reveal a hidden meaning in our interpretation of what is being said on stage, a subtext if you like, it becomes apparent that this something we all do because we do not always take the spoken word at its face value.

An outstanding cast (Fiona Bell, Gavin Drea, Clare Dunne, Nick Dunning, Gráinne Keenan, Alex Nowak) helped to make this a theatrical experience of overwhelming power and conviction.