Theatre review – ‘Tribes’ at the Royal Court

I was a little worried before I saw the Royal Court’s Tribes – a play about a deaf boy who finds his deaf identity after growing up in a hearing family – because I’ve seen a number of films and plays get deafness wrong.

With knowledge of deafness – and what it’s like to be part of the deaf community – often restricted to people with a direct experience of it, a hearing audience (and critics) often praise dramas that deaf people themselves feel is unrealistic or patronising. Happily, neither of those criticisms apply in this case.

This is a play that manages to convey – in only two hours – what some people spend a lifetime trying to learn and understand about what it’s like to be deaf – whether you are born deaf, or deafness happens to you.

Writer Nina Raine cleverly portrays different types of deaf people, is brave in writing brutal, stinging dialogue that sometimes reveals the limitations of the deaf world, and positive in explaining the sense of belonging the deaf community can offer – all through the story we see before us.

This is a play about language and understanding. The opening scene starkly shows an experience familiar to many deaf people, as a middle class family argue passionately with one another around a dinner table. These are rapid-fire conversations full of conflict, frustration and humour – yet while everyone else talks and fidgets and comes in and out of the room, one person stays remarkably still, and passive. Billy, who is deaf.

Billy is not only left out, he’s almost invisible. Until the day he tells his family he has a girlfriend – Sylvia, who is from a deaf family, and is herself going deaf. Soon, he is learning to sign, news which is greeted with scepticism and suspicion.

When Billy brings Sylvia to dinner, she finds herself forced not only to explain deaf culture, but also to defend herself from an interrogation by his academic father (superbly played by Stanley Townsend). When Sylvia defiantly shows just how sign language can visually translate the emotions in poetry, the audience broke into spontaneous applause.

If Billy is passive and quiet in the first half of the play, after the interval we see him challenge his family for the first time, as his sense of a deaf identity takes hold. Themes established as ideas or theories in the first half are presented in a much more personal way in the second, and the ending sent a shiver down my spine. That’s a cliche I know, and I’m embarrassed to admit it, but here it is: I was moved.

The writing, acting and direction are excellent. Deaf actor Jacob Casselden deserves special praise for his intense yet subtle performance. Loud applause and cheers at the end of the play summed up the audience response, while us deafies in the circle did our best to ‘wave’ deaf applause that Jacob could see.

Tribes has the potential to have a truly transforming effect on the perceptions of hearing people with no knowledge of deafness at all, and I would recommend that deaf people who share Billy’s experience of being left out drag their hearing families to this play even if by force, because it may just sum up something they have never felt able to say.

Meanwhile for a deaf person, Tribes presents a world we already know more dramatically and eloquently than I have seen before. This should be seen as a shining example of how to make a rich, textured drama full of revelations about the deaf experience.

One deafie in our group got it right as we spoke in the Royal Court’s foyer afterwards. He told me the play made him feel “empowered.” I’d say that’s about right.

The day I beat the audiologist

First published in the Hearing Times, October 2010

In terms of looking after my hearing aids, I’m a rebel. No matter what my audiologists tell me, I’ve never, ever, cleaned my ear moulds. It’s very silly – I get the odd ear infection as a result, which should be enough to make me change, but hasn’t so far. I’m stubborn. Why change the habit of a lifetime?

For the first two years of my life, everyone thought I was hearing. It was only when I neglected to start speaking that further investigation was carried out, and a hearing loss of around 70 decibels was discovered. After visiting an audiology clinic for the first time, I was soon fitted with hearing aids.

I don’t remember visiting the clinic, but I do remember hating my hearing aids from the word go. One day, Mum caught me just as I was about to flush them down the toilet. Being very little at the time, I didn’t quite have the strength to flush, and miraculously she managed to save them by drying them out on the radiator. Not that I was remotely thankful.

Through sheer perseverance, Mum got me used to having plastic things on my ears by stubbornly putting them back in every time I took them off. Nowadays I feel quite naked without my hearing aids on (though I have learned that only wearing them is not an acceptable way of leaving the house), and I have come to think of audiology clinics as a home from home.

I grew up in the Cotswolds, and visiting the local ENT (Ear Nose and Throat department) involved a trip to our nearest city – Oxford. It was a family day out, and a welcome day off school. The staff at the clinic would greet us like long-lost relatives (perhaps enjoying treating people without grey hair for once) and afterwards, we’d eat chips in the hospital canteen before going shopping in Oxford.

The bit that I secretly enjoyed most was when our new ear moulds were made. The audiologist would mix up some white putty with a miniscule dot of red paste. The mixture became pink and was soon piped into our ears in a massive syringe. That was my favourite bit. It sounded a bit like going underwater, and while I waited for the mixture to go firm, I made mini-statues from the off cuts.

After that, I’d take a hearing test – presumably to make sure my hearing hadn’t gone walkabout in the previous year. I’d be put in a sound proofed room with carpet covering the walls, listening for a series of high and low noises that started off loud, becoming gradually quieter and quieter until they were barely perceptible. Every time I heard a sound, I had to press a button and the results were marked on an audiogram.

I saw the hearing test as a challenge. I wanted to beat the test, and I desperately wanted to freak out the grumpy man who was the only member of staff there I didn’t like. One day, when I was 12, I managed it.

Through the window, I could see the man twiddling a series of dials in front of me, except he’d forgotten to hide his hands. Even when I couldn’t hear the sounds anymore, I simply continued pressing the button whenever he turned the biggest dial.

As I revealed a previously-hidden forensic level of hearing ability, a furrowed brow appeared on his forehead. Then a quizzical crease between his eyebrows. Then his face went pink, then a little red. Then he suddenly looked up at me, seeing in an instant just how much I was enjoying it. He angrily started to shout at me, which made me laugh even more, for I couldn’t hear a word. I lipread it though. Put it this way, he wasn’t happy. I finished the test and went home with a big smile on my face.

Recently, I got the best audiologist ever, when a friend of mine trained and got a job at my local clinic. It was great – we talked about football while configuring my digital hearing aids. He later managed to get me a very expensive pair of hearing aids on the NHS. Which just shows, making a friend of an audiologist can be a very useful thing indeed. What makes it even better is he’s never complained about my dirty earmoulds.