As the lights go down in the steeply raked Sumner Theatre, we seem at first to be looking out onto an enormous Fifteen Puzzle, the pocket puzzle in which one slides 15 numbered tiles around a four-by-four grid, attempting to sort them into numerical order. Director Julian Meyrick, as is his want, has opened the stage right out, giving himself even more room than usual, so that we can see to the very back of the dimly lit the theatre and its wings. In the play's first moments, the large panels of the stage floor, like the tiles of the Fifteen Puzzle, begin sliding smoothly toward us, and toward the protagonist, Billie (Luke Watts). As the play progresses, the panels, which instead of numbers bear the contents of a family home, beds, tables, desks, siblings and parents, slide vertically and horizontally, shuffled according to the logic of the play, while the blank space, a gaping hole into the understage area, roams restlessly.
Billy is the only deaf member of his family. His mother (Sarah Peirse) taught him to lip read, but never sign language. Nor was he introduce to the deaf community. His father (Brian Lipson), strong-willed, opinionated and very loud, did not want his son to grow up thinking himself handicapped, or to be absorbed into a community with values and customs alien to those of the family. But when Billy's new girlfriend Sylvia (Alison Bell), who comes from a deaf family and is going deaf herself, teaches Billy sign language, he begins attending deaf events and finally discovers what has been denied him – a place where people actually listen to what he has to say. As he grows more distant from them, his family begin to unravel, especially his siblings, Ruth (Julia Grace) and Daniel (David Paterson), who feel their lives are on a precipice.
Meyrick's use of the stage is the highlight here, accentuating the terrible feelings of isolation each character experiences through the play. There is something quite desolate about the scenario, something that suggests a sort of "we-live-like-we-dream" loneliness. It was an unsettling experience to sit through it with an empty seat on my left, empty in what otherwise looked like a full house.
Nina Raine's script, which was first performed in 2010, deserves its success, though the writing is certainly more consistent through the first half. It poses many intriguing theoretical questions, such as whether deafness is properly a handicap, or whether sign language is merely a simplified version of English or whether it is a full and evolving natural language in itself. These question and others may not be original – William Stoke put the latter to bed in 1965 – but the issue is given point and consequence by the drama of the story. There is a show-defining scene where Daniel recites a romantically augmented fragment of Milton's Paradise Lost that Sylvia translates into sign, matching his verbal expressiveness with a visual equivalent. The tension here between Alison Bell and David Paterson is, as they say, palpable, and the scene is an advertisement for the expressive power of theatre, as much as for any system of language, visual or verbal.
There's also a wonderful way in which the constant off-hand references to language and belonging, those self-consciously writerly iterations which so often clunk like cowbells in these "big-theme" plays, are here more like incitements to think about how our everyday use of language relates to the things we think and specifically to ideas about who we are. Moreover, there are plenty of glittery turns of phrase that seem to flash out across Meyrick's dim stage. Lipson's opening line alone ("It's like being fucked in the face by a crab") is enough to light the stage for a good five minutes.
Daniel's struggle with auditory hallucinations is overplayed in the second half, and while Paterson's performance is enthusiastic, it does drag the story practically to a halt, especially in those scenes where he is contrasted with Watts' coolly expressed righteous anger in the lead.
I come back to the Fifteen Puzzle game. I think there is considerable poetry in the idea of a movable void -- an empty square shuffled over the board as the various tiles shift hither and thither in the restless reorganisation of life's parts. Constantly covered over, it always reappears. Even when the tiles are finally in their right order, the void is still there, waiting at the end. Through the final act, Julian Meyrick uses this idea of a shifting void to great effect as we see the floating panels of the stage pull relationships apart, leaving some stranded as the inevitable void comes between them. The final scene between Daniel, Ruth and Sylvia, trying to communicate across a gap in the stage, being a terrifying example.
The other thing I like about the Fifteen Puzzle – apart from the fact that the first commercially distributed Fifteen Puzzles were manufactured and sold by students at the American School for the Deaf – is that it doesn't always work. In fact, for half of all possible starting positions, the Fifteen Puzzle is unsolvable. The conclusion to Tribes is not necessarily an unhappy one, there is some hope; but the problems faced by these characters, their internal demons, have a certain intractability that makes the play feel sharply honest, and is a source for much personal reflection.