At a time when the West End is having its worst season ever (a result of the war in Iraq, the drop in US tourism and a refusal to clean up the district), we should be especially pleased by signs of regional rebirth. Precisely because travelling in London has become such a nightmare, and because the congestion charge is just one example of what seems to be a determination to stamp out theatregoing in the capital, the news from the road is that audiences are rediscovering their local theatres.
Sadly, however, this comes at a time when all but one of the great touring companies have disbanded. Prospect is gone, as is the Actors' Company, and neither the National nor the RSC has yet found a way to satisfy its touring mandate while keeping the home stages occupied. So it is good to welcome English Touring Theatre on its brief stopover at the Old Vic.
In his current King Lear, the director Stephen Unwin takes the view that the audience may not know what happens to the old monarch at the last. The result is a little workmanlike and lacking in directorial emphasis, but it is a cut above Shakespeare for Schools.
Timothy West, though still a natural Gloucester, manages the madness of Lear more touchingly than most.
He suggests that the deranged king still has moments of lucidity in which, tragically, he grasps the extent of his mental imbalance. For those seeing Lear for the first time, this unfashionably simple production should ensure that it will not be their last.
We hit here what is becoming an increasing problem for critics - more and more often, shows of considerable excellence, such as the two that follow, come in to London for hopelessly brief runs. It is my belief that certain productions need to be written about because of what they tell us of the current state of the theatre, even though they will be gone before you get a chance to see them.
Julia Pascal's scorching play at the Tricycle Theatre, about the Middle East, could not be more timely. Crossing Jerusalem is a moving work in which two families, one Jewish and one Christian Arab, play out the whole miserable political, personal and emotional history of the region in a single day. Pascal asks the only questions worth asking - the ones that have no answers. The play powerfully suggests that the wounds of a childhood with no security and an adolescence corroded by hate can never heal. Jack Gold's production is physically awkward and Pamela Howard's revolving set design does not help. But, although the Israeli and Arab parts are well cast, with Jewish and Arab actors, Crossing Jerusalem is somewhat undercast. The shining exception is Suzanne Bertish, playing a Jewish mother who embodies the horror of being sinned against as well as sinner. Her character is a creation of infinite delicacy, a tough businesswoman who cannot make peace even in her own family, let alone in her nation or her world. Crossing Jerusalem does not entirely work as a play, but at the present time it is certainly worthy of our attention.
In the 30 years since Yukio Ninagawa abandoned his career as an actor for that of a director, we in Britain have been lucky enough to see half a dozen of his major Shakespearean productions. His Pericles, in the Japanese tradition of Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, has just finished at the Olivier. All the problems of this play, which Ben Jonson dismissed as "a mouldy tale" in 1629, are solved by Ninagawa's radical rethink. Not so much Pacific Overtures as Pacific nightmares, Ninagawa goes for dreams and memories in a balletic staging that uses such simple effects as a cardboard cut-out boat on an ocean of billowing silk. This weird and wonderful production can work only if we abandon the demand for logic or indeed for answers of any kind. Thus, Thaisa is quite literally raised from the dead on a tomb that rises centre stage and although, in the strictest sense, this is neither kabuki nor Noh drama, Ninagawa borrows magnificently from both traditions.
Although the play was one of Shakespeare's most successful during his own lifetime, it has not survived well, partly because of its incredibly complex plot involving incest, madness, famine, prostitution, death, resurrection and shipwreck before an eventual rescue by pirates, leading to a happy ending. It often looks as if an absent-minded classical historian had dropped King Lear into the middle of The Winter's Tale.
But all of us who still believe in London as the theatre capital of the world owe Ninagawa and the producer, Thelma Holt, an enormous debt of gratitude for showing us that despite all we thought we knew, Pericles does work.
King Lear is at the Old Vic, London SE1 (020 7928 7616) until 26 April