2001 in review: Moving dramas made out of a global crisis

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The Independent Culture

Brought to the Royal Court as part of the London International Festival of Theatre (Lift), Alive from Palestine was for me the most life-changing experience in drama this year. In June, I went out to the Al-Kasaba Theatre in Ramallah to write a preview piece about it and got my first sickening experience of life in a virtually apartheid state. The show arose from the fact that, with the blockades, bombings and street-gunfire during this latest intifada, rehearsals for normal plays became impossible. Rather than close down, the venue rallied with a new kind of event – evenings of monologues devised by the actors that responded directly to the developing situation and took us into the hearts and minds of the people behind the headlines. It was a heartening testimony to theatre's capacity to react with the swiftness of a newspaper and to push beyond journalism's priorities.

I could not have imagined, back then, that the problems of the Middle East would so soon be subsumed into a global crisis, or that, by November, the Soho Theatre would feel the need to mount its own quick-reaction plays as the war unfolded in Afghanistan. In narrowly theatrical terms, 11 September added insult to the injury that foot-and-mouth had already inflicted on the West End. This was a year when Mayors Livingstone and Giuliani had to urge citizens to put their bums on seats in support of the beleaguered stage-industry. A case of "sit back and think of England", given the direness of much on in the West End.

But that sector furnished us with some of the year's finest fare. In response to Deborah Warner's Medea, a number of my colleagues trotted out their swotty essays on "How Greek Tragedy Should Be Staged". What they failed to see was that Warner violated the letter of the law in order to keep all the more shattering faith with its spirit, while the brilliant Fiona Shaw led us further into the tormented psychology of this heroine than seemed decent.

In this neck of the woods, too, the autumn brought the Right Size's delightful homage to Morecambe and Wise in The Play What I Wrote, and the wall-to-wall bliss of Michael Blakemore's elating production of Kiss Me, Kate – the one show that I'd say is worth every penny of the £37.50 you have fork out for a prime seat. (Let's hope that in the post-11 September stocktaking, a more enlightened pricing system will be high on the agenda for discussion.)

It wasn't a cornucopian year for new writing. The best play, in my view, was Martin McDonagh's Lieutenant of Inishmore, a hilarious, lacerating satire on the IRA and the psychotic sentimentality of the terrorist mind. This piece was apparently turned down by both the Royal Court and the National Theatre. More fool them, for it's not as though either of these venues has been bursting with choice discoveries of late. The latter did, though, play host to Robert Lepage's marvellous The Far Side of the Moon, a haunting poem of a piece about human isolation and our inner need to explore outer space. In the past, the technical wizardry of Lepage and his sometimes facile talent for forging connections between disparate things has struck me as calculated to leave him stranded as a permanent wunderkind. I was warmed and heartened by the new-found emotional maturity in this latest work.

The Sheffield Crucible rightly won the Best Regional Theatre gong in the Barclays/TMA awards. Grandage's name is being bandied about a lot in Theatreland's current great game of musical chairs. Nick Hytner's appointment as eventual successor to Trevor Nunn was followed by an epidemic of chair-vacating. By this time next year, different bottoms will be making an impression on the leather at the Almeida, Donmar, Hampstead and West Yorkshire Playhouse, all of whose artistic directors are moving on. The National plumped for the fourth white, male, middle-aged Cambridge graduate in succession, though perhaps this critic – a white, male, middle-aged Oxford graduate – is not best placed to carp, and Hytner was the best person for the post.

The Almeida will be the first to declare its hand in January and, given that theatres define their identities in reaction to each other, that will have a knock-on effect on the other appointments. For what it's worth, I'd like to see Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod at the Almeida, Michael Grandage at the Donmar (but keeping on Sheffield), and Max Stafford-Clark or Dominic Dromgoole at Hampstead. Offstage at least, 2002 can't fail to be interesting.

'Alive from Palestine' (Lift, Royal Court)
'Lieutenant of Inishmore' (Other Place, Stratford)
'Medea' (Queen's Theatre)
'Kiss Me, Kate' (Victoria Palace)
'The Far Side of the Moon' (Royal National Theatre)