Pangdemonium's TRIBES a coming together of wit and heart.

©Pangdemonium ©Pangdemonium

A family comedy-drama, Pangdemonium’s staging of Nina Raine’s play Tribes is a raucous event. It comes with the usual: squabbling family members, prejudiced father-figure, overt sibling rivalry, parents trying to get their children to “fuck off”. There’s a twist, though. The youngest and dearest son of the family, Billy (Thomas Pang, who just happens to share a surname with — but is unrelated to — both the artistic directors of the theatre company), is deaf from birth. The family makes it a point to not “pander” to their differently-abled son, and makes it a point to bring him up as though he were fully able to hear. Amidst the banter, the mis-understandings, mis-construing, mis-treating of family by family, it becomes obvious that play intends to have the audience rethink the idea of “mis-hearing” as a comedic device. For Billy does “mis-hear” everything by virtue of being non-hearing, as much as his family (and perhaps the audience at first) do not realise it.

Serving up this ruckus is the patriarch Christopher (Adrian Pang), with his loud and brutally honest academic-speak, Daniel (Gavin Yap) determinedly playing the role of the ne’er-do-well son, Mum’s (Susan Tordoff) open nurturing arms, and the single daughter Ruth’s (Frances Lee) unfortunate role as a verbal punching bag for Chris’ and Dan’s insecure egos. Billy finds himself drowned out by all the noise and dust swept aloft by his family’s combined egos.

The four, minus Billy, trade verbal wit and banter on-stage like practiced boxers in an exhibition fight: gracefully dancing around each other while delivering blows in turn but none looking to finish the fight (for what fun would that be?). Billy mostly watches from the side of the ring, unable to keep up with them. He is the goofy differently-abled little brother, until he is not.

This changes when Billy meets Sylvia (Ethel Yap), a girl who is gradually losing her hearing. The two get romantically involved, and Sylvia re-ignites Billy’s dormant yearning for a place to belong. When Billy introduces Sylvia as his new girlfriend at the family dinner table, the seams of the family’s seemingly intimate banter begin to show. The two begin signing to each other, quite literally signalling a turning point in the way dialogue and gesture work in the play.

As the play enters post-intermission, the cast is forced to manage and temper the momentum that they’ve gained over the last hour or so to present the nuance and weight that takes over from the rapid fire banter of the earlier scenes. Here, Billy’s and Sylvia’s performances become key: text and dialogue is no longer spoken but performed through sign language, which is not simply a translation of word to gesture but an entire different language that requires the whole force of their beings to convey. Here is the core of what the play intends for the hearing and non-signing to grasp: signed word and phrase is not just an analogue to the word. Sign is to emotion as dance is to music; both channel something that wells up from the gut into bodily form and expression, skipping woefully inadequate spoken and written word. Sylvia and Billy portray this with a gut-wrenching earnestness that casts a certain glimmering ray on the set through the later half of the play.

The performance staged on Sunday (24th May, 2015) was full of force and heart; the cast manages to hit the right notes whether they were aiming to tickle or to make your heart ache. It is apt then that the play begins with a declaration of an intent to bust nuts — the play opens with a scene where the family sits down to eat a bowl of them — for the stage that evening was bursting with boisterous energy. Tribes by Pangdemonium is a strong consideration of how we speak to one another — or don’t speak to one another (even if we think of it as speaking) — and what listening truly means, for the hearing and non-hearing.

Tomorrow evening (7th June) is the last time the play is staged. Get your tickets at Sistic now.