With barbed humour and compelling emotion, Louis Catliff’s Tribes proved to be a stunning final curtain to a great semester, and year, from Mermaids. This humorous drama traces the journey of Billy, a deaf boy struggling to be heard. Billy has learned to lip read with astonishing accuracy but still struggles to follow his family’s bickering, a frequent occurrence now all three grown-up children have moved back to the home. However, his life changes when he meets Sylvia, who voices herself through sign language as she is rapidly losing her hearing. As Sylvia opens his eyes to the closeness of the deaf community, Billy is forced to confront painful questions as to where his real tribe is.
Louis’ direction in St Andrews has been consistently outstanding and this production was no exception. The harmony between tension and comedy created a wonderfully unpredictable atmosphere on stage, with the audience never quite sure what to expect next from Billy’s troubled path. In connection with the play’s focus on communication, close attention had been paid to dialogue and all conversations had a seemingly natural rhythm. Arguments never felt like a random outburst, and instead simmered precariously until boiling point.
The Stage had been inventively decorated with all the familiar bric-a-brac of a family home thanks to a conscientious set design by Lucy Reis. Yet, this ordinary setting housed a very unusual group of characters. All the cast contributed fully to the bustling household scenes, creating a setting that felt choicely over-crowded and like tragic heroes, each actor successfully accentuated the flaws in his or her character. A particular favourite of mine was Jonathan Hewitt as Christopher, the father figure who seemed more like a big kid than a role model. As the core of most controversies, Jonathan was brilliantly antagonistic and cutting. Though Billy spoke the least, Benjamin Osugo had an incredible stage presence that made him fascinating to watch. As a peaceful persona amongst the chaos, it was even more powerful when Billy finally lost his patience with the family. In spite of a calm and measured performance as Sylvia, Isabella Sheridan seemed to come crashing in as an entire upheaval of perceptions on disability. Her speech about feeling out of touch with the deaf community was supremely emotive.
Words and pictures worked together seamlessly in an imaginative use of technology that showed real creativity. Playful animations by Alexandrina Fleming appeared between set changes whilst the play’s central theme of broken communication was beautifully depicted on screen by deliberately inaccurate subtitles. During the play’s most tense moments, a projection screen at the back of stage displayed the true meaning of what each family member wanted to say. The result was a painful reminder that people often need to express more than their words allow for. Mention must be absolutely made for the time and effort taken by the cast to learn sign language for parts of the performance. It showed courage and skill to integrate something so challenging and time-consuming into the production, which really contributed to immersing us fully into Billy’s world.
Tribes inventively showcased the power of theatre to offer a voice for those who struggle to make themselves listened to. The overall effect of its ingenious creative choices was a deep and colourful picture of what it is like not only to live with a disability, but also with the preconceptions surrounding. I laughed, I cried and I learned.
STARS: * * * * *
Carla van der Sluijs
Photos by Mermaids