THEATRE: Now is the winter of our prize discontents

David Benedict casts a jaundiced eye over a year of theatrical disasters, and presents the Golden Lifebelt Awards
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The Independent Culture
EVERYONE KNOWS that all "art" prizes are an inappropriate introduction of competition to creativity/ great advertising/ disgusting trade fairs coveted merely by the media/ loved by the winners/ fixed (delete as appropriate). But, to paraphrase Sally Field accepting her second Academy Award: we love them, we really, really love them. Accusations of rigging and bribery aside, in the theatre world there is one unassailable fact: most judges are far from being experts and know next to nothing about what individual jobs actually involve.

This skews awards - not to mention millennial "Best of..." lists - in the following manner:

1 Directing: big is best

Most people think that directing is solely about staging, so the deployment of a cast of thousands will always win over the carefully controlled subtlety of a chamber piece.

2 Acting: the bolder the better

Forget subtlety, acting awards go to gut-wrenching, scenery-chewing roles, but as any actor will tell you, huge emotions are easy. It's producing relaxed, simple, clear, engaging emotion on stage that's hard.

3 No laughs please

Provoking laughter isn't deemed "serious" enough to win awards. Unlike tragic acting, which is supposedly hard work and worthy of commendation, making people laugh is seen as a gift, so where's the skill? The exceptions are Maggie Smith and highly deserving Evening Standard winner, Janie Dee.

4 Design: more sets please, we're British

The flashier the better. This applies across the board. Good designers know that the real job is to capture the idea, movement and tone of a play, but awards panels like sets, ie grand-scale interior design. Similarly, most lighting prizes go to highly visible work, yet designers argue that if you notice their effects, then something's wrong. Throw heaps of colour at a stage and awards will be yours.

5 Plays: the write stuff

Almost everyone confuses production and text. Endless Best Play gongs go to lousy scripts dressed up in flashy staging (see 1) or disguised by a huge performances (see 2). The other besetting sin is voting for a play's ideas/themes rather than the effectiveness of their dramatic expression, ie "we like what this playwright is saying". That isn't positive criticism, it's censorship.

So with that in mind, was 1999 a vintage year? Not for new plays it wasn't. Christmas came early with turkeys to spare from the likes of Stephen Poliakoff, Snoo Wilson and Hanif Kureishi, whose thinly disguised rehash of his novel Intimacy, entitled Sleep With Me, is up there with Rod Stewart's "Do You Think I'm Sexy?", ie the answer's "No".

The best news was the bandying about of the long-lost concept of "ensemble". From Salisbury Playhouse to Dundee Rep, via Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum and the National Theatre, artistic directors revitalised the repertoire by abandoning one-off casting in favour of employing the same actors across several shows. This created productions of greater depth and stimulated actors and audiences alike, nowhere more so than in Uncle Vanya at the enterprising Mercury Theatre Colchester, and Trevor Nunn's NT revival of Gorky's Summerfolk. If you missed this triumphant vindication of ensemble acting, don't despair: it returns on 10 February 2000.

Ironically, the year's finest sustained acting came from an ensemble gathered together for just one play. The blistering sincerity of every performance in Peter Gill's exquisitely calibrated Certain Young Men at the Almeida was extraordinarily intense, and so unflashy as to go almost unremarked.

One of the year's biggest disappointments was the calibre of London's centenary Coward revivals, which leads me inexorably to this year's Golden Lifebelt Awards. These indecently fought-over laurels go to those plucky souls trapped in a nightmare not of their own making, who kept their heads when all about were losing theirs, a kind of "not drowning but waving".

This year's runners-up are the four actors of the execrable revue I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, but the joint winners are Malcolm Sinclair and Anita Dobson. As a bemused diplomat, the gloriously droll Sinclair was the sole voice of sanity in Declan Donnellan's astonishingly wilful Hay Fever. Elsewhere, he directed spellbinding productions of Le Cid and The Winter's Tale, but here Donnellan turned a great light comedy into a farce - in every sense - and led a fine group of actors seriously astray.

There were similar directorial conceits abroad in Simon Callow's deeply disappointing The Pajama Game. This under-cast, under-directed and over- produced postmodern mess was so busy having an attitude to the material that it never got around to making it work. In a cast and crew notable for its lack of musicals experience, the skilled, infectiously enjoyable ease of Anita Dobson shone like a beacon.