Kate Bassett: Darkest Pinter

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The Independent Culture

It was spookily tenebrous, in fact almost pitch black, in the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs but Harold Pinter's glowering lone performance in Krapp's Last Tape still blazes in the memory as the most electrifying production of 2006. Staged by artistic director Ian Rickson in the Court's 50th anniversary season, this was not only a personal hail and farewell to Sam Beckett - whose minimalism influenced Pinter's own plays - but also a potently brooding depiction of Krapp, the frustrated and implicitly dying journal-keeper. With his deep rasping voice ravaged by cancer, Pinter's combination of frailty with tenacity was harrowing and ferociously impressive.

The Andersen Project was superb too, part of the Barbican's adventurous international BITE programme. A visually stunning piece by deviser-performer Robert Lepage, it was not just a radical yet sensitive one-man biodrama about Hans Christian Andersen - depicted as a lonely, sexually ambivalent figure. Switching costumes at lightning speed, Lepage traced an intricate web of lives, spanning continents and eras whilst exploring the nature of erotic fantasies, creativity and despair. En route he slipped in a delicious satire of EU arts bureaucrats and teasing hints of autobiography.

At the National Theatre, Nick Hytner deserves applause for supporting Katie Mitchell's polemical but fascinating experimental directing, in spite of narrow-minded condemnations from certain quarters. Mitchell has a musical sense of pacing, on one level reacting to a script like a score and, at points, she startlingly shifts classic plays towards expressionistic dance. Chekhov's The Seagull has never seemed more urgently driven - at the same time as mournfully haunted - than in her vision of its fraught and fleeting encounters.

The RSC's Complete Works Festival hit its stride with Gregory Doran's production of Antony and Cleopatra. Laughing and idling with Harriet Walter's superlatively natural Cleopatra, Patrick Stewart's Antony felt like the real thing: a great but flawed grizzled warrior, too fun-loving for uptight Roman politics but then a crumpling raging boozer - like a wounded lion - when defeated. Also, magically, Tim Supple's Indian-inspired Midsummer Night's Dream - the most exciting since Peter Brook's - made complete sense in a fluid mix of English, Hindi and other languages. Set in a jungle of timber scaffolding, sexual aggression lurked under the wood-fairies' antics, the enchanted love-juice being scarlet ointment smeared on the sleeper's face like a ritualistic mugging.

The Swan was converted (by designer Mike Britton) into a exciting promenade space as well - like a beautiful rusty ship - for a vibrant and moving Winter's Tale. That was directed by Dominic Cooke who additionally staged the RSC's scorching revival of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, with Iain Glen, and who is now set to succeed Rickson at the Royal Court. If you are kicking yourself for not catching the Complete Works, The Winter's Tale is on at the Swan for a few more days, Antony and Cleopatra transfers to the the Novello in London next month, and Midsummer Night's Dream is coming to Camden's Roundhouse.

A magnificent converted engine shed, the Roundhouse reopened in the summer of '06 with an acrobatically breathtaking and musically rocking show, Fuerzabruta. Performed by the young Argentine troupe De La Guarda, it featured a transparent pool full of splashing, slamming and sliding bodies, the whole thing floating down over the audience until it was so close you could reach up and touch.

Still, you win some, you lose some. Woeful flops of the last twelvemonth have included Doran's Merry Wives, the Musical in Stratford, a lame rejig of the Bard's Falstaff farce. At London's Old Vic, Kevin Spacey finally came up trumps with Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten, with Eve Best, but not before Arthur Miller's humiliatingly feeble late play, Resurrection Blues. Barely directed by Robert Altman (RIP), that one bombed so badly the venue shut down and lay doggo for several months. A comeback year for veteran Peter Shaffer actually did his reputation no favours either. In Trevor Nunn's revival of The Royal Hunt of the Sun at the NT, risibly passé mime routines made the conquistadors look like Marcel Marceau lost in Peru. In the West End, the unwisely revived 1960s thriller, Creeper, couldn't have been creakier.

Though it was a thin year for new plays generally, the National Theatre of Scotland got off to a terrific start at the Edinburgh Festival with Gregory Burke's storming military docudrama, Black Watch, and Antony Neilson's off-kilter daydream, Realism - not to mention the company's spectacular kids' show, Wolves in the Walls. There was also fine work from dramatist Laura Wade. Soho Theatre's premiere of Other Hands - which featured Anna Maxwell Martin and correlated souring relationships with repetitive stress injuries - was directed with finesse by the promisingly talented Bijan Sheibani.

Finally, among the rising stars on stage, Daniel Mays was outstanding as a lanky lout - a clowny then a seriously dangerous one - at the Court. Also brilliantly flicking between the scarily weird, hilarious and lovable were Katherine Parkinson (as a cranky singleton in Other Hands), Matt Smith (as a sadistic geek and a dopehead in the NT's teenage dramas, Chatroom and Citizenship), and wonderful Debbie Chazen (in Crooked at the Bush, playing a remedial and evangelical Mississippi sweetheart.)

In The Crucible, newcomer Michelle Terry unforgettably made the terrified serving-girl Mary Warren loom larger than the seductress Abigail Williams. Andrew Garfield shone out as a sensitive and bolshy adolescent in Out of Joint's Rwandan drama, The Overwhelming, and Pippa Bennett-Warner sang and danced her way through Tony Kushner's musical, Caroline or Change, with supreme confidence. And she's still at school! All names to watch out for in the future.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

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