Tribes, Royal Court Theatre, London


Nina Raine picked up a couple of "Most Promising Dramatist" awards for her 2006 play Rabbit. She amply fulfils that promise now with Tribes, a fiercely intelligent, caustically funny and emotionally wrenching piece about communication, belonging, and identity. It focuses on Billy (excellent Jacob Casselden), a young man who was born deaf and has been brought up as a lip-reader. Back home from university, he struggles to get a word in edgeways in a household of bickering egotists headed by Stanley Townsend's exuberantly non-PC writer-father and including two fractiously frustrated, unemployed siblings – an aspiring academic (Harry Treadaway) and a wannabe opera-singer (Phoebe Waller-Bridge).

Liberation seems to beckon when Billy meets Sylvia (superlatively played by Michelle Terry) who is going deaf. As the child of deaf parents, she is proficient at signing and she introduces Billy to "the deaf community", the very idea of which is contemptuously dismissed by his father, who thinks that to define oneself by a disability is tantamount to "basing your identity on coming from Gateshead". The brilliant, painfully ironic twist is that Billy becomes a born-again militant, rejecting both speech and family, at the precise time that Sylvia is beginning to resist the hierarchical community with its snobberies (only those deaf from birth are truly kosher) and its ideologically driven failures of empathy (you aren't allowed to mourn, as Sylvia does, the loss of any residual hearing).

There's both a witty and a heartbreaking candour in Terry's sensitive portrayal as we see when Sylvia flutteringly demonstrates the expressive beauty of sign language by translating a passage from Paradise Lost, or when she's reluctantly forced to interpret Billy's dogmatically signed outburst of rebuke for the benefit of his appalled family, or when she grieves for the once normal voice that is now getting flatter and for the irony she can no longer communicate.

The play is astute about the nature of tribes. Given its private jokes, incestuous squabbling and arrogant dismissal of outsiders, you can see why Billy is stung to declare that "if anywhere is a closed bloody ghetto it's this bloody house." I'm unsure, though, about the plot development whereby Billy, having become a forensic lip-reader for the Crown Prosecution Service, is accused of relying too much on intuitive guess-work to the extent of fabricating the evidence. It's not that the idea is far-fetched; I just don't think it psychologically likely in his case.

Tribes unfolds in a dramatically incisive mix of speech and sign language, the latter projected in words on an upstage gauze. Most piercing, though, are those moments of surtitled silence, as in the gestures of love between Billy and his mentally troubled brother that bring home the eloquence of what is left unsaid. These give the lie to the father's smugly aggressive scepticism ("how can you feel a feeling unless you have a word for it?") and tacitly establish that it's hyper-articulacy that can sometimes be the real handicap.

To 13 November (020 7565 5000)

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before