Wall-to-wall Bard (with strings attached)

While the classics still get top billing, there are bold new ventures on offer including a dark, Beckettian puppet show

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The Independent Culture

In the bleak midwinter, ie the first fortnight of January, it's always lean pickings in terms of big opening nights. Venture forth, however, and check out the London fringe.

New artistic directors Brian Logan (of Cartoon de Salvo) and Jenny Paton (formerly of Fuel) may be about to turn the Camden theatre CPT into a hotbed of experiment to rival Battersea's BAC. Take a punt on Frankland and Sons, kicking off there on 10 January. This autobiographical two-hander about revelatory family letters features Fringe First Award-winner Tom Frankland and his dad.

Also from 10 January, The Table is a guaranteed treat: a darkly funny, Beckettian puppet show by Blind Summit (of ENO's Madam Butterfly and A Dog's Heart). That's at Soho Theatre as part of the multimedia London International Mime Festival. Meanwhile, the West Country has its own explosion of playful innovation, Bristol Ferment (city-wide, 11 to 22 January).

From 18 January, Hampstead Theatre premieres Simon Stephens's The Trial of Ubu, a savage satire set in The Hague, staged by Katie Mitchell. A week earlier, the National Theatre gets rolling with Nicholas Wright's new memory play about an East European émigré turned early Hollywood mogul. Travelling Light previews from 11 January in the Lyttelton, with Antony Sher directed by Nicholas Hytner. Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer will be rollicking in the Olivier too, with Steve Pemberton from The League of Gentlemen.

In February, Josie Rourke's mettle will be tested as she takes over the Donmar, kicking off with George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer and thereby vying with She Stoops – both being 18th-century comedies. Rourke's inaugural season will continue in April with Robert Holman's Making Noise Quietly (a lyrical trilogy of chance meetings, directed by Peter Gill), and with The Physicists, Dürrenmatt's barbed satire about scientific ethics (at the end of May) receiving its first major UK revival since Peter Brook's production in the Sixties.

The Royal Court's artistic director, Dominic Cooke, has just announced that he's bowing out in 2013. His last year of tenure will feature Rafe Spall contemplating the universe's multiple possibilities in Constellations by Nick Payne (Theatre Upstairs, from 13 January). Then In Basildon, a new play by David Eldridge, boasts a promising cast: Linda Bassett, Debbie Chazen and Lee Ross, directed by Cooke (Theatre Downstairs in February). Eye-catching too, Stephen Mangan will be stressed out by parenting in Birthday, a Joe Penhall premiere staged by Roger Michell (Downstairs in June). Incidentally, Michell is also directing Farewell to the Theatre, Richard Nelson's new biodrama about Harley Granville-Barker. That's at the Hampstead Theatre in March.

The Lyric Hammersmith looks alluringly cutting edge, with the vibrant and visceral troupe Frantic Assembly arriving there on 11 January. Its latest, Lovesong, is scripted by Abi Morgan of Tiny Dynamite and The Iron Lady acclaim. That's followed by Filter's eagerly awaited, radically mischievous take on A Midsummer Night's Dream in February.

That month, for Michael Frayn fans, there's a mini-season devoted to his work at Sheffield's linked theatres, the Crucible and Lyceum. Meanwhile, back in London, darkly twisted Jacobean tragedies take hold. Edgy Jessica Raine stars in Middleton's The Changeling at the Young Vic, and the incestuous tangles of John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore embroil Cheek by Jowl's superb director, Declan Donnellan, at the Barbican. That's not to mention Eve Best stained by seething jealousy in Webster's Duchess of Malfi, at the Old Vic in March.

Celebrating its 30th anniversary, the Barbican stays on a high with The Devil and Mr Punch, a comedy of love and manslaughter dreamed up by Improbable, with whirling puppets, wild fiddle music and a gin-parlour piano (in the Pit theatre, through February). Mr Punch, like Ubu, is being chased down for his crimes, so this must be the zeitgeist.

Complicité's world-class Simon McBurney pursues his passion for Bulgakov, adapting The Master and Margarita for the Barbican's main house in March. It marks a return to the stage for Paul Rhys, and the following month sees Cate Blanchett tread the same boards in Big and Small (Gross und Klein) by Botho Strauss – finding herself in an optimistic yet weirdly uncomfortable dream world. Juliette Binoche follows suit in September, playing Strindberg's teasing Miss Julie in Mademoiselle Julie.

April is when the real bonanza starts, though, as the Cultural Olympiad gains momentum and British theatres go for broke. Festival is stacked upon festival, wheels within wheels, but don't worry about which is which: the World Shakespeare Festival; the London 2012 Festival; World Stages London ... just make sure you book in advance.

Definitely head for Shakespeare's Globe. The timber-framed playhouse on London's South Bank is going international, presenting all of the Bard's 37 plays in 37 different languages, under the banner Globe to Globe (for six weeks, starting on Shakespeare's birthday, 23 April). Catch a Comedy of Errors from Afghanistan, a Merchant of Venice from Israel, a Maori Troilus and Cressida ... or watch the whole lot for a bargain £100.

The World Shakespeare Festival also begins in April, running to November. Highlights, nationwide, include the eternally avant-garde Wooster Group which is set to tackle Troilus, intriguingly in league with Rupert Goold, at the Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon. The RSC's Gregory Doran (acclaimed for the David Tennant Hamlet) will be setting Julius Caesar in modern-day sub-Saharan Africa, one of a clutch of productions transferring from Stratford to London. They'll be taking over the Roundhouse and the West End's Noël Coward Theatre in the summer. And the NT offers scintillating competition, with Simon Russell Beale spinning on the wheel of fortune in Timon of Athens, directed by Nicholas Hytner in July. The list goes on. It's an absolute feast.

Watch out for...

Hitherto known as Harry Potter's onscreen girlfriend, in April, Katie Leung takes a leading role in Wild Swans, the Young Vic's adaptation of Jung Chang's award-winning novel about three generations of courageous Chinese women, spanning the 20th century. It's staged as part of World Stages London, celebrating cultural diversity.

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