Theatre: Everything to play for in the new year

Shakespeare - man of the millennium - rightly looms large in next year's theatre calendar. But what new works, imaginative casting and inspired direction can we await with expectation?

A s Milton so very nearly wrote: "The world is all before us, where to choose/ The moment when we fuck up." Yes, 2000 is a daunting date for any scheduler's diary, and there's nothing like either tackling it head on or insouciantly ignoring it. To commemorate the first two years of the new century, the Royal Shakespeare Company is, for example, unrolling the mighty eight-play sequence of Shakespeare's history plays. Well, it would, wouldn't it? Questions tinged with a new urgency, given the portentous timing and the not-so-small matter of Europe - who are we? How did we get here? What does it mean to be English? - can be handily approached through renegotiating the complexities of these two great cycles.

Fine, but isn't it a mite obvious as a millennial commitment? No, look closer. Whenever the RSC has tackled the histories en masse in the past (from the landmark Hall/Barton Wars of the Roses in 1963 to the Adrian Noble Plantagenets of 1988), the project has been shaped by a single directorial vision. Here, though, there's an intriguing difference. Beginning with Steven Pimlott's staging of Richard II at the Other Place in March, the first four plays will be unveiled in the contrasting styles of three different directors (Pimlott, Michael Attenborough and Edward Hall, whose all-male Twelfth Night at the Watermill, Newbury was one of the revelatory delights of 1999) and across a range of environments in Stratford's three theatres.

There's an attractive riskiness about this and an aptness, too - the change of vision and venue reflecting the unpredictability of the change of monarch. Some of the money comes, ironically enough, from our former colonies across the Atlantic colony - all too, too madly Madness of George III. Let's hope the sponsors won't start dictating their own stuffy terms.

Shakespeare, man of the millennium, is the ultimate progenitor of another of the year's most mouthwatering prospects. Ralph Fiennes renews his creative connection with Jonathan Kent, co-director at north London's Almeida (a partnership that began with the Hackney Empire/Broadway Hamlet and then the Islington/Moscow Ivanov) in a repertory double of Richard II and Coriolanus. This combination of plays is a brilliant pairing not just thematically (the 14th-century king and the Roman warrior both spoilt and damaged hyper- individualists who are liabilities to - and critiques of - the body politic), but also in terms of casting possibilities.

At the centre of both tragedies is an intense relationship between two men, a criss-cross of oppressive affinities and rivalries. Playing Bolingbroke and Tullus Aufidius to Fiennes's Richard and Coriolanus is the superb Linus Roache, an actor of such thrilling gifts that he can live down anything - even having the hapless, Neil Hamilton-hugging Tory stooge Ken (Coronation Street) Barlow as his dad.

A further reason for one's frankly dribbling anticipation is the "found" venue. Having sallied forth from its Islington base into the West End and to the Malvern Festival, the Almeida is now striking out into uncharted territory, producing these Shakespeares in the atmospheric ruined shell of the old Gainsborough Film Studios in Shoreditch, London.

The Almeida, which increasingly resembles a National Theatre in exile, is also responsible for some of the most intriguing new plays of 2000. Not just the latest Pinter (Celebration, opening in March) but Cressida, a fascinating-sounding piece by Nicholas Wright which stars Michael Gambon as the real-life John Shank, talent-scout and trainer of boy players in the decadent London theatre of the 1630s. Expect a "Play for Today" in its oblique references to the Royal Court and in its investigation of the rich, muddled sexuality which was incarnated by the transvestite stage, complicated further when one of the boys here brings a new level of naturalism to the acting of women.

According to David Hare in his book Acting Up, 1999's most inadvertently ludicrous and mean-spirited volume, it is simply not possible for a newspaper critic to have a positive thought about Sarah Kane without being guilty of the most ghastly bad faith - unlike David Hare, who was so publicly tireless in her support while she was alive. Apparently, all our reactions to her suicide can be dismissed as "boiling [her] bones to make our soup". So I had better record, in trembling sotto voce, that I am greatly looking forward to seeing her posthumous play, an adaptation of Goethe's The Sorrows of Werther, at the Royal Court in the autumn.

Meanwhile, the latest builder-imposed delay on the Court's return to its refurbished Sloane Square home (the grand opening in January has been put back a month) means that one aches all the more to see how that great whack of lottery money has been spent. High on the list of treats scheduled for this venue is The Country, Martin Crimp's first new play since his terminally post-modernist Attempts on Her Life. It is directed by Katie Mitchell, who staged the latter piece at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan.

Further afield, two new pieces catch my eye. With Mr Heracles, a post- Euripidean look at the meaning of heroism in the modern age, the Millennium Dome poet Simon Armitage takes a step in the direction of becoming the Tony Harrison of his generation. And who can resist the thought of Peter Hall at the tiny Gate Theatre (will he fit?) directing Cuckoos, a modern comedy by Guiseppe Manfridi in which a gynaecologist father is summoned to rescue his son who has got stuck while buggering an older woman. Oedipal, or what?

Of all the year's revivals, the one most keenly whetting this critic's appetite is Michael Grandage's Donmar Warehouse staging of Peter Nichols's 1981/83 Passion Play (in which the eternal triangle is swollen and complicated by the presence of two alter egos). Famously difficult to work with, Nichols is also long overdue to be rediscovered as the most naturally gifted writer in postwar drama. To consider his neglect by the people in power over the last 15 years is to wonder, not for the first time, whether theatres are primarily run for the convenience of, well, the people who run them. Let's hope that Grandage's revival sparks a glorious fructifying renaissance.

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