Tribes, Royal Court Downstairs, London<br/>Antony and Cleopatra, Playhouse, Liverpool<br/>The Cherry Orchard, Repertory Theatre, Birmingham

Nina Raine's probing new play about deafness is poignant and funny. Shame about the schmaltz
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Everyone is talking over each other at the start of Tribes, except for Billy.

He hardly says a word. Marking director Roger Michell's return to the Royal Court, Nina Raine's new drama is set, primarily, round the dining table in Billy's family home. Now 20-something and deaf since birth, he has grown up encircled by his hearing and very voluble parents and siblings.

It's a close-knit yet fractious clan, where affection is eccentrically expressed through hard truths and mouthy arguments, under the influence of Billy's academic father, Christopher. We glean that the family taught Billy (quietly intense Jacob Casselden) to speak and lip-read when young, scorning sign language as ghettoising. Yet he remains sidelined, marooned at the table in a pool of light, unable to follow the collective vociferating.

No one really listens to him either, until he shatteringly rebels. Having set his heart on Michelle Terry's Sylvia – a soulmate from the deaf community – he repudiates his relatives and challenges them to learn his newly acquired means of communication. He's an angry young man silently signing at them as Sylvia, put on the spot, tries to mediate.

Impressive in many respects, Raine's play is probably the most illuminating and moving mainstream play about deafness since Children of a Lesser God. Terry's Sylvia is overwhelmingly poignant, reduced to tears by Christopher's needling questions and speaking of what it's like to lose your hearing slowly but inexorably.

Tribes experiments with the dramatic potential of silence and signing, with surtitles also relaying one or two characters' thoughts (though that idea remains underdeveloped). As a meet-the-family drama, it's explosively funny and probing too, without a weak link in Michell's cast. Stanley Townsend is superb as Christopher, irresistibly droll as well as crushingly bullish. As the competitive siblings, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Harry Treadaway are sparky squabblers – in his case with a volatile edge.

The trouble is that Raine's writing feels most authentic when scrutinising the intelligentsia. The issue of deafness feels somehow like an add-on, conscientiously researched and faintly didactic with Billy's family eventually learning their lesson, becoming politically correct. Moreover, Michell's production ends on a embarrassingly schmaltzy note: a family reunion with chairs in a circle, as if for group therapy. Daniel asks Billy to teach him the heart-crossing sign for "Love", and they hug, accompanied by a soundtrack of angelic singing. Ick.

Let us move swiftly on to the civil-going-on-international wars in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Even here, of course, it's the Roman general's domestic arrangements that cause the political status quo to go up in smoke. His libertine idling in Egypt incenses Octavius Caesar, especially when Antony snubs their coalition by dumping Octavius's sister and returning to Cleo.

Alexandria is certainly easy on the eye in Janet Suzman's visually luxurious production. Kim Cattrall's Cleopatra (very Diana Rigg with a dark bob) swans around in silky haute couture among lamps of perforated silver. This staging, however, ends up hazily pan-cultural, with too many implied historic parallels. Oliver Hoare's Pompey looks like Che Guevara/Rob Roy with a hint of Taliban. It's pick'n'mix epochs, too, with Antony's officers kitted out in parade-ground trousers, contemporary ballistic helmets and gleaming breastplates. Bemusingly, Octavius's sister is a transvestite: actor Mark Sutherland in a frock and fooling no one.

That said, one gets the gist from Suzman's production that the Western world has been pitted against the East from time immemorial. She also highlights a vein of sneering bigotry in Octavius's victorious forces, even as they hanker to go native like Antony.

What's most surprising is that Cattrall and Jeffery Kissoon, as the illustrious lovers, are outshone by Martin Hutson's pinstriped, priggish Octavius. His is a performance rich in irate twitches and crisp verse-speaking, effortlessly making Shakespeare's pentameters sound like modern political wrangling.

By comparison, Kissoon can be a frightful old ham. When he thinks barnstorming high drama he bellows melodramatically, staggering around with buckled knees like Mr Toad-does-Tragedy. This is unwittingly ludicrous. What he and Cattrall don't get is how comedy and tragedy are, in fact, poignantly intertwined in this play. Her petulant turning on a sixpence might have been more charmingly funny had Kissoon remembered to act besotted. Their love needs to be bigger and more heartbreakingly foolish as they destroy themselves, the Roman Republic and Ptolemaic rule in Egypt.

It's the offstage axe, felling the trees, which symbolically anticipates the end of an era in Chekhov's Cherry Orchard. Lopakhin, the self-made businessman whose ancestors were serfs, has bought the country estate to which the hopelessly dreamy Madame Ranevskaya must now wave goodbye.

Rachel Kavanaugh's production (using Tom Stoppard's sensitive translation) is bleakly beautiful: high, bare chambers and pale sunlight. Some of the ensemble aren't great, the tutor-going-on-revolutionary Trofimov notably lacks fire. But Josie Lawrence is outstanding as Ranevskaya, vol -uptuously elegant and warmly expansive, yet harbouring deep anxieties. John Ramm is also on excellent form as Lopakhin, socially gauche in his top hat, clearly hung up on Ranevskaya, but with a flash of long-suppressed class rage.

'Tribes' (020-7565 5000) to 13 Nov; 'Antony and Cleopatra' (0151-709 4776) to 13 Nov; 'The Cherry Orchard' (0121-236 4455) to 6 Nov

Next Week:

Kate Bassett refuses to be fooled by the overtly respectable couples in J B Priestley's When We Are Married