Moments that made the year: Tales of the Unexpected II, or how Tom Stoppard made our critic cry

Theatre
How do you define a "defining moment"? I can think of several defining moments in my theatrical year, all of them based on a slightly different understanding of what the term means. If it's an "I will never be the same again after this aesthetic-cum-moral thrill", then I must give pride of place to the moment, in Richard Eyre's production of The Invention of Love, when I found myself watching a Stoppard play through a blur of tears. Beforehand, this would have seemed as likely as my watching a football match wide-awake.

There's a strange link between the sequence that caused this reaction and another in the same director's King Lear. Stoppard's play imagines an out-of-time meeting between the elderly, professorial AE Housman and his younger, undergraduate self. Soul-mates recognise each other across an aching gulf: one has the uncomfortable power of incognito over the other, whom he can only protect so far.

These are the very qualities Eyre's Lear so matchlessly communicated in the relationship between the disguised Edgar and the King, and the exploration of these heart-snagging affinities between two men produced the deepest theatrical pleasure of the year. Paul Rhys was the youth in both instances. Brilliant performances from Ian Holm as Lear, John Wood as the older Housman, and from the ever-astonishing Judi Dench in Amy's View, ensured that Richard Eyre left the National on the wave of triumph he was owed.

If a "defining moment" is the point at which you make some personal discovery about the artform or at which a semi-conscious hunch ripens into something more palpable, then 1997, from where I'm sitting, has not been short of them. Caryl Churchill's superb Blue Heart and Complicite's staging of Ionesco's The Chairs taught me to look at the Theatre of the Absurd and its ludic magnifications and metaphors with new eyes. It's not the grand existential statements that matter but the essential realism of the emotions and the relationships. Katie Mitchell's wonderful staging of six Samuel Beckett shorts for the RSC reconfirmed this.

If the new-writing side of Peter Hall's tragically aborted repertory project at the Old Vic showed how a stage of that size exposes the studio- scale imagination and flimsy construction of much recent drama, the season as a whole was mighty proof of the virtues of a true acting company. Meanwhile, at the RSC Stratford, too many of the big-house Shakespeare stagings seemed to have no deeper motive than to keep the tired machine ticking over and the tills ringing. By contrast, at the Swan, Laurence Boswell's Notting Hill Carnival take on Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair was the year's best example of how to bring a difficult classic alive.

Meanwhile, the Government behaves as if theatre occupies roughly the same place in its affections as single mothers. The old "spread a little unhappiness" policy, whereby everyone got a share of the misery, has been switched by the London Arts Board to one of selective murder. The Gate, the King's Head and the Greenwich theatres are in the balance. If only there were a culture minister prepared to think the unthinkable: that the arts are not a mere adjunct to life but one of the main reasons life is worth living.

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