Theatre review: Pangdemonium's Tribes is a warm, wickedly funny drama about deafness

Ethel Yap and Thomas Pang in Pangdemonium's Tribes.
Ethel Yap and Thomas Pang in Pangdemonium's Tribes.PHOTO: PANGDEMONIUM

Arguments are going off around Billy like little explosions. Right, left, overhead, his bickering siblings are picking at each other, his over-critical academic father is picking them apart, his long-suffering novelist-hopeful mother bustles around, trying to put out the fires her hilariously potty-mouthed, blisteringly smart family is setting all across their living room.

He pops a nut into his mouth, chews it, then picks up another one - the quiet eye of the storm.

Billy is deaf, and in this warm, wickedly funny and remarkably moving production at Drama Centre Theatre by Pangdemonium, and through the stunning professional debut of Thomas Pang, his struggle to be understood and accepted comes to stark, vivid life.

British playwright Nina Raine's critically acclaimed text, which premiered at London's Royal Court Theatre in 2010, is a clear-eyed look at one young man's encounter with deaf culture after living with a prickly family that has shunned it since his birth in an attempt to make their son and brother as "normal" and well-adjusted as possible. He lipreads with great precision, and he doesn't use sign language, relying on speech instead.

When he meets Sylvia (Ethel Yap), who was born to deaf parents and who is gradually losing her hearing, he is introduced, through love, to a world never previously imagined - listened to instead of always listening, transcending those rough boundaries of spoken and written language to reach something much more physical and visceral.

But this is not your average sweet and sappy "love will help you understand yourself" or "boy triumphs over 'disability'" story. Raine juggles an astonishing number of thematic concerns and issues throughout this politically incorrect piece about the textures and tyrannies of language, how our very attempts to be precise in the way we communicate can, in fact, obscure all communication.

Billy's father Christopher (Adrian Pang) is deliciously acerbic, with all of the English language seemingly at his disposal, which he draws from for both exquisite tirades and shocking metaphors (eating his wife's smoked roe pasta is akin to "being f***ed in the face by a crab).

Beth (Susan Tordoff), his mother, is writing a detective novel - and also one about a marriage disintegrating. Brother Daniel (Gavin Yap) is struggling to write a thesis, in his father's footsteps, on how "language doesn't determine meaning", while battling the warning signs of a mental health breakdown. And sister Ruth (Frances Lee), an opera singer who can't seem to get her career to take off, is firmly ensconced in a world of music that her youngest brother will never be able to hear.

Director Tracie Pang has orchestrated an intimate family drama of incredible proportions, choreographing this dysfunctional but fiercely protective brood into a symphony of clever counterpoint and subtext - characters talking behind each other's backs or when others are out of the room, or the private confrontations that soon become public in possibly one of the most awkward meet-the-family dinner sessions ever.

From offstage arguments, faintly heard, or inverting the sonic focus of the play, suddenly turning the volume down on a group of squabbling characters and throwing the spotlight onto a side conversation, she plays with our expectations of what it means to hear one another out.

She also captures what Raine made the context of the play, the tribes we cling to and pledge allegiance to, the hierarchies we put in place whether subconsciously or wide in the open - this could be the way all the family's children are desperate to live up to their father's standards, or when Sylvia allows a glimpse into the exclusionary and unspoken politics of the deaf community she is in.

The cast never treats the subject matter with kid gloves, neither do they descend into a shouty, chaotic mess of emotional turmoil. Every scene is beautifully calibrated, and even if the play attempts to milk its characters for any amount of emotional turning points in its second half, and despite the occasional aggressive over-emote, the ensemble is a taut string carefully unwound.

Thomas Pang, in particular, is a revelation as sweet, idealistic Billy, who in one confrontation becomes a tidal wave of latent emotion surfacing for air. I am not deeply familiar with the nuances of sign language, but he slips into the role with extraordinary effortlessness. I half wished that a deaf actor might have been cast in the role - American actor Russell Harvard, who starred in the North American premiere, is deaf - but I think this is a commendable start.

Pangdemonium spares no effort in making the production accessible to audiences both hearing and nonhearing. In selected performances, three sign language interpreters are on stage throughout the play, signing various roles, and there is the occasional use of surtitling to clarify and emphasise the various layers to a conversation, often to comic or tear-jerking effect.

In the end, I suppose, we are all trying to make sense of where we fit into the world, to articulate the deep, murky sludge of our own emotions and bring those hazy, shapeless things into a form that can be understood. Tribes shows that this can be done - with a little help from our family and friends, no matter how difficult they are.

Book it

TRIBES

Where: Drama Centre Theatre, National Library Building Level 3

When: Till June 7. Tue to Sat at 8pm, Sat and Sun at 3pm, June 7 (Sun) at 8pm

Admission: $40 to $70 from Sistic (excludes booking fee; call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

Info: Advisory 16: Coarse language. Only selected performances will incorporate Singapore Sign Language interpreters on stage. For concessions and show dates, go to www.pangdemonium.com