Nina Raine’s new play, Tribes, has just opened to great reviews in New York. It’s about a young deaf man named Billy, part of a loud, opinionated family who all talk a lot, not noticing that in their midst Billy stays silent. It’s a play about talking and listening, and hearing and not hearing—which itself is different from being or becoming deaf. Raine is a good listener. It was how she got started as a playwright.
After Raine left school and before she went to university at Oxford, she did some travelling around Italy. In letters home she’d retail bits of dialogue she’d overheard on the train or elsewhere: “I remember particularly,” she says, “there were two American girls talking about the shoes they’d bought in Florence.” It was her mother, the writer and teacher Ann Pasternak-Slater, who thought she’d really caught something. “She said I had an ear,” says Raine. When, after university, Raine moved to London, she got a job working as a cashier at the River Café (a fancy restaurant despite its unassuming name), and kept on listening there, too. The cashier’s desk was in an area where people would stand around waiting, chatting or talking on their phones; Raine so enjoyed the snippets of dialogue she heard—”many of them quite dramatic tête-à-têtes”—that she wrote them into a playlet about the waiters and waitresses there. “That got me an agent,” she says.
Agent or not, says Raine, “It took me ages to get started, really”—though to be 36 with two award-winning plays hardly seems slow. She is fortunate in that both her parents are writers and now retired academics (her father is the poet Craig Raine) who encourage and constructively criticize their only daughter—”they’re brilliant readers,” she says—but playwriting is something Raine taught herself, and it didn’t happen overnight. “I’d read lots of plays,” she says, “but I didn’t have much experience of contemporary theater.” The British playwright and director Patrick Marber (his 1997 play Closer was later made into a movie directed by Mike Nichols) was a hero of hers; they met when Marber directed Craig Raine’s play 1953: A Version of Racine’s Andromaque. “We went to see his play Dealer’s Choice when he and my father were romancing each other,” says Raine. “I was blown away; it’s so funny, so sexy.” She admires Marber’s ability to catch the way witty people talk in real life—except that in real life, she points out, they’re never quite that funny.
It’s hard to write a play
Raine’s break came after she became an assistant director at the Royal Court Theatre, London’s long-time home of adventurous and avant-garde productions. “My year and a half there gave me confidence—you see really grand and famous directors being cheeked by actors,” says Raine. Realizing that even big names, such as Stephen Daldry, had difficulties in arguments with actors made her feel much better later on when she found herself in similar situations. “I saw that the boss is not always the boss and it’s not easy for anyone, no matter what their reputation. I’d thought that if I were [the director] Nicholas Hytner they wouldn’t be doing this or that to me. But in fact they would—they don’t care.” And, of course, she got to see how a play is made. “One of my jobs was to read the slush pile of plays that get sent in every day—it’s around 30 a day,” she says. “At first you feel sorry for them all, thinking ‘This will never get made’—and then you begin to think ‘It’s their own fault.’ It’s kind of arrogant thinking ‘I can write a play.’ It’s hard to write a play.”
It was not, however, until Raine left the Royal Court that she began to write her own first play, Rabbit—“I’d been so busy I had no energy to write before”—which she also directed when it eventually opened (that took a couple of years) in 2006 in a small space above a North London pub. Rabbit took off, was transferred to a central London theatre, moved to New York the following year as part of the Brits off Broadway Festival, and went on to be performed in Australia as well; and it won Raine the Critics’ Circle and the Charles Wintour Evening Standard awards for the year’s most promising playwright.
Rabbit, says Raine, is about sex and death. Her second play, Tiger Country—which opened in London early in 2011—is about doctors. Raine doesn’t think it will cross the Atlantic as, she says, “it’s all about the National Health Service, and it’s so superficially English.” She adds, however, “It’s also about death and healing, and what happens to the healers. Do they get sick? Are they infected by having ill people pass through their hands every day? What does that do to you?”
Besides her three plays, Raine has also written pilots for TV—some with her younger brother Moses, who is himself a published playwright and poet—and has worked as a dramaturge and director, notably on Alia Bano’s verbatim play about Muslims, Behind the Image, performed as part of the Royal Court’s 2008 Rough Cuts season.
Raine’s latest play is based in part on many real stories she discovered while researching deafness. One girl who was going deaf introduced her to others in the community—”The D-E-A-F C-O-M-M-U-N-I-T-Y,” as Billy’s father shouts. In the process, Raine also took a crash course in sign language: “I couldn’t have written the scene where Billy’s girlfriend explains sign language to his family without learning it,” she says. It was also important for Raine that the actor playing Billy be deaf himself: “During rehearsals we used an interpreter to help get over the nuances and the subtlety a bit better with Russell Harvard, the actor who plays Billy, but somehow communication was never really an issue.” At one point, Billy, who gets a job reading the lips of criminals caught on closed-circuit TV footage, makes up the meaning of what the crooks are saying. That story, Raine says, came straight from someone she met; the case is still being investigated. “We make Billy into an angel, an angelic, mystical deaf boy, but really he’s just ordinary,” she says. “Thematically, I wanted him to be a kind of fantasist like the rest of his family; he’s like his mother, making up stories, so while his father says, ‘We’re all creative apart from Billy,’ I wanted him to be the most creative of all of them, in a weird, twisted way.” As in Rabbit, all the characters are scathing and combative—although in Tribes, arguing is seen as proof of love. Ironically, Raine says she hates conflict. “I’m quite a coward: I’ll do anything to avoid an argument.”
With the London and New York productions of Tribes, Raine has now had the experience of working on both sides of the Atlantic with two very different directors. “Both Roger Michell in London and David Cromer in New York are so bright,” says Raine. “They actually listened to what I said.” She goes on, “I was very lucky to work with Michell in London, because he’s very picky. He liked it, but he’s quite surgical.” He wanted to cut two scenes: one was set outside a club where Billy meets Sylvia, who becomes his girlfriend; in the second, Billy and Sylvia are canoodling as they fall in love. Michell explained that he wanted the play to stay within the pressure cooker of the family house, and that the audience should meet Sylvia at the same time as the family does, something that had not occurred to Raine. “I thought, wow, that’s a brilliant idea,” she says. “I just hadn’t seen it as a possibility, and, in fact, you don’t lose anything by it narratively.” As it happened, when the New York production preliminaries began, it was the old version of the script, which included both scenes, that was sent on ahead, so by the time Raine arrived in New York for auditions those two scenes were the ones they were using to audition the women. “In the end,” she says, “everyone said, we love those scenes, are you sure you want to cut them? So we compromised and kept one.” For Raine, seeing what was going to be different in this way was part of what was exciting about having another production of the play. As it happened, the New York director, David Cromer, ended up leaving the play pretty much as it was written.
Though both directors “are very lucid when they talk to actors,” says Raine, “aesthetically they are poles apart.” Raine describes Michell’s method as minimalist, an impression that was reinforced by a visit to his house, “which is all burnished stainless-steel surfaces and everything in drawers that slide out like silk and hiss back again.” His cooking was like his directing: “Beautiful, but very controlled, very perfectionist.” Cromer, on the other hand, is more anarchic: “He’ll throw the cards up in the air and see how they come down.” The New York set, for instance, is full of naturalistic clutter. Cromer, Raine explains, wanted to give the set “the patina of years,” so it includes items that might have been bought two weeks ago—such as Billy’s mother’s inflated ergonomic ball as the odd chair at the scrubbed wooden table—along with pieces that have sat for 40 years in the same kitchen. “I was a bit tense about all the clutter, as I’d seen it in London done so well pared-down. In London we had just the table and chairs; everything else was brought on by the actors and taken off when they left—so everything was cleared except the piano, and even that was behind some gauze.”
It’s hard to ignore—especially since it comes in the third line of the play—when Christopher, Billy’s father, uses the word cunt. “I reckon that’s part of Craig in me,” says Raine, whose father’s predilection for a good swear is well known. (The actors in London who played Billy’s writer/academic parents began by being somewhat nervous about performing in front of her writer/academic parents, who sat in the front row.) “It’s me being rebellious. Not wanting to offend, but counter-suggestible: don’t tell me what I can or cannot say.” (Before Tribes came to New York it was staged in Hungary; “It was weird hearing cunt in Hungarian,” says Raine. “It sounds like “shetvek.”) The word, spoken by the heroine, Bella, also originally figured in Rabbit. “During the New York rehearsals, the actress who was playing her asked if we could cut it; she felt that by the third time she said it the audience already hated her. I cut two of the three and replaced them with something less potent, but left one in. By the time I was back working on Tribes,” Raine continues, “I thought, ‘Fuck these Americans,’ and put cunt in the third line.” She says that Cromer was fine with it, though, she adds, “We have a sign warning people that there is smoking in the production, and at one point I did wonder if we should have a notice saying that there was bad language.” Raine sees a difference in how audiences separated by some 50 blocks react: those at the midtown venue where Rabbit was staged “seemed much more uptight than the downtown audience of Tribes has been so far.”
“It was interesting to observe each director’s way of working with the actors,” says Raine. “I just loved Cromer’s American turn of phrase.” For instance, she says, in rehearsal the actress playing Sylvia asked the director for guidance about what her character is feeling at a point when Billy is about to cut himself off from his family. “’I feel very awkward because I’m going to drop this bombshell,’ she says, and David said, ‘Yeah, you get to drop this turd into the punchbowl.’” Raine loves this kind of shorthand: in another scene, when Billy’s brother is putting him down about falling in love, the brother says, “I don’t want to piss on this.” “They’re playing this dark scene by the kettle in the kitchen,” Raine explains, “and David jumps in and says, ‘Yeah, it’s like saying all I have is urine and you’re on fire.’ Graphic images like these aren’t just helpful to the actors; they keep the room feeling excited, entertained and humorous. Of course, there are loads of directors who can’t do that, and they’re fine. I don’t think you’d get Peter Brook directing that way.”
Both productions originally used screens onto which surtitles were projected, showing what the characters were really thinking, even when what they were saying was quite bland. “It was one of the things I was looking forward to most when I started to write the play,” says Raine. But the bland chat doesn’t last very long; pretty soon everyone in the play is spilling their guts, so finding subtext for people’s words when they’re all saying exactly what they mean became a problem. The New York production was also more complicated than the one in London—it’s staged in the round, so more than one screen was needed for everyone to be able to read the surtitles. “It was hard for the audience to hear words while being distracted by multiple screens at different heights and angles projecting ‘misleading’ text,” says Raine. “It was hard for the actors, too.” In London, Roger Michell felt the surtitles were too comedic, but “like a gentleman, he put them in, even though he was unwilling.” By the penultimate preview, though, Raine felt that the actors had got the hang of it and the surtitles really were funny: “So Billy’s dad would say, ‘This is extremely fucking interesting,’ and up on the screen you’d read, ‘Was I right or was I right about the deaf community, folks?’ It would get a laugh, but it was bizarre for the actors—they’d say something bland, there’d be a pause, and then a laugh. In the end, I said, ‘Right, Roger, I’m going to trust you,’ and I agreed to cut them. In New York,” she continues, “Cromer really loved them and we tried to make them work, but they didn’t. There were other technical problems involved with them, too. To light everybody properly in the round there had to be quite a bright lighting state; that just bleached out the projections, which really work best in a small, dark scene.”
Rehearsals and previews, Raine says, are exhausting. “You’re completely starved by the time the first audience comes in. Roger said that when he was directing the romantic comedy Notting Hill, he told the cast and crew at the last read-through that that would the last time they would have any laughs before the film was screened, because until then it turns into Ibsen.” This mirrored Raine’s own experience: “You forget completely that it’s funny—and then at last, months later, there’s an audience and people laugh and you remember it all over again.” Tech, as the technical tests that follow the move from rehearsal room to theater are called, took David Cromer 11 days rather than the usual two or three because of its complexity. “This is when the crew maps all the sound and lighting cues,” says Raine. “It’s a difficult time for actors because they have to stop and start a lot, and a harrowing time for the writer, because you hear your play get mangled.” During mid-tech misery for her second play, Tiger Country, Raine often called Michell for advice and cheer. “He reminded me that everyone loses touch with the play during tech, but it does come back,” she says. “You sometimes see scenes go dead because you’ve had to do them six times in a row, and you get a totally false picture of the play.”
Cromer’s approach during tech, she felt, was a gamble—one that in the end worked very well but asked a lot of the cast: “He’d give them acting notes on a scene after we’d run it a few times, so they were having to act with lighting and sound people whispering all around them. But he wanted a lot of time to work on the surtitles and we were doing it in the round, so we put up with it, although it was a kind of purgatory.” Dress rehearsals, she says, are also hard for the writer: “Nobody laughs particularly, since you’re doing it in front of people who know the play backwards, mostly technical types and worried producers who are thinking ‘Is this going to work?’” Then, at the first preview, “people came in and laughed their heads off. Of course that spoils you and you think, wow, they love everything we do—so the next night you’re listening worriedly: ‘Are they laughing as much?’ because the shock of them laughing that first night has gone.”
Tribes is a success; the New York production will run until June 3. So what happens next? Raine says she’s working on “a thing on the Mitfords” that’s in development. After all, she points out, “Every family is a tribe with its own code and rules.”—LUCY SISMAN