ARTS / Richard the joint first: Stage Actor of the Year

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IT WAS not a great year for heroic performances. The most obvious contenders were Antony Sher's Tamburlaine (at the Swan) which, besides its stunning acrobatics, brought a sense of Faustian aspiration to the Scythian warlord; and Paul Scofield's Shotover in Heartbreak House (Haymarket) which gave Shaw the tragic reverberation of Joseph Conrad. Otherwise there was Kenneth Branagh's non-patrician Coriolanus at Chichester, John Nettles's return to Stratford as an underwhelming Leontes, and Alan Rickman's Hamlet (Riverside, Hammersmith, and touring), a jaundiced outsider who gave up on revenge even before he had started.

The two actors it still thrills me to remember are Simon Russell Beale and Barrie Rutter: both as Richard III. Jointly they reclaimed the role from the last lingering grasp of Olivier. Beale played him in Sam Mendes's production (the Other Place and touring) as a flabby grotesque housing the intelligence of a snake whose venomous wit never concealed his self-hatred. Rutter played the role in his own production for his own Northern Broadsides company, at the Hull Festival and touring. His Yorkshire Richard led you to expect a brusque, down-to-earth villain, and left you completely unprepared for the refined cruelties and horrors in the second (and usually anti- climactic) part of the play. Both Richards can still be seen: Rutter's at the Riverside Studios (081- 748 3354) till 9 Jan, Beale's at the Donmar Warehouse (071-867 1150) from 14 Jan.

Close behind comes Ann Mitchell, for her portrayal of the title role in Euripides's Hecuba in Laurence Boswell's production at the Gate. She unforgettably showed a heroic protagonist belittled and finally destroyed by the experience of tragedy. In separate ways, all three performances took me to places I had never seen before.

(Photographs omitted)