Review of the year: Theatre

Schiller thrillers on Shaftesbury Avenue
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The Independent Culture

The shock of the old made the biggest impact - with revelatory revivals proving richer and more nutritious than the year's new straight drama. Astonishingly, Schiller became a big noise on Shaftesbury Avenue - thanks to Michael Grandage. The two acclaimed West End transfers were his babies, as the director of Don Carlos and producer of Phyllida Lloyd's Mary Stuart.

These productions established Schiller as the one of the greatest analysts of the perilous interplay between power politics and personal psychology.

The year that gave us the horrors of 7 July also saw the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, England's 5/11. To mark it, the RSC's Greg Doran programmed a fascinating Stratford season of neglected works from this unstable period. Now in the process of reopening in London, the plays hold up a jolting Jacobean mirror to some of our most pressing current concerns - the bullying paranoia of superpowers (for imperial Rome, read Bush's US in Massinger's Believe What You Will); the violent, chauvinistic resentment against asylum-seekers (in the scene Shakespeare wrote in the collaborative Thomas More) and the threat to the elderly posed by "living wills" (foreshadowed in Middleton's satire, A New Way To Please You).

At the National Theatre, the sanctimony, cover-up and spin we associate with the Blair ethos were found to be piquantly anticipated in the righteous, ship-owning hero of Pillars of the Community, one of the lesser-known Ibsen plays. At the Barbican, Deborah Warner's Julius Caesar had a stellar cast and a stage heaving with extras. And at the Almeida, Richard Eyre pulled off an impressive double whammy - for his pitch-perfect Hedda Gabler, he provided a translation of barbed nuance and insinuation.

The most eagerly anticipated new play was Mike Leigh's Two Thousand Years. The piece - in which a north London Liberal Jewish clan discover, with horror, that their young son has become religious - has been hailed for its (allegedly) rich and detailed depiction of family life and for its social insights. I'm with Maureen Lipman, though, whocalled it "naive and simplistic, with arguments culled straight from The Guardian".

Out of Joint's Talking to Terrorists was verbatim theatre at its best: a collage of testimonies from former activists and their victims. Edward Kemp's 5/11 at Chichester was a highly intelligent attempt to intimate the parallels and differences between al-Qa'ida and the Catholic plotters of 1605. And on the musical front, we rejoiced at the marvellous stage-reinvention of Billy Elliot.

The Five Best

Mary Stuart (Donmar Warehouse, Apollo)

Pillars of the Community (National Theatre)

Hedda Gabler (Almeida, Duke of York's)

Talking to Terrorists (Out of Joint, Royal Court)

Billy Elliot (Victoria Palace)Billy Elliott (Victoria Palace)Billy Elliot (Victoria Palace)

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