THEATRE / Aida joins the Dublin demo

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LOCALLY, the big news at this year's Dublin Theatre Festival was the professional reunion of the brothers Sheridan - Jim, Hollywood director of In the Name of the Father, and playwright-director Peter - for the costliest event in the festival's 35 years: James Plunkett's The Risen People.

This much-recycled study of Jim Larkin and the 1913 Dublin lock-out has special significance in the centenary year of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions; and the Sheridans' adaptation (fuelled by a pounds 300,000 budget) projects it as an epic salute to the birth of Irish nationalism. Monumental settings (Sally Crabb) and photomontage backdrops (Chris Slingsby) anchor the production in historical reality and offer a Dantean panorama of the grinding industrial and domestic conditions, the demonstrations and police reprisals of the strike that brought the city to a standstill for six starving months.

The merits of the show are its refusal to demonise the intransigent employers' leader, William Martin Murphy, whom Tom Hickey plays as a civilised old gentleman with principled objections to unionised labour; and the distanced presentation of Larkin (Jer O'Leary) exclusively through his own superb oratory - it is like the O'Connell Street statue come to life.

There my admiration stops. I cannot say what the show means to Dubliners. To an outsider it comes over as pastiche O'Casey, with insulated scenes of elevated historical re-enactment and low comic relief sandwiching a drama of divided loyalties between a striking foreman and his wife, Annie (Lorraine Pilkington), who is a boss's daughter. Their story has the disadvantage of being both manipulative and inconclusive (in the end, Annie bolts for England). But what really scuppers the narrative is the decision to make Annie a Verdi- lover. Intending to hitch a national lift on the Risorgimento, they show her playing records of Ada and identifying with the enslaved Ethiopian princess. It does not stop there. Radames and co, in full voice and Pharaonic fig, also invade the foundry and tenements, obliterating the spoken dialogue, and flooding the stage with irrelevant associations, even after the heroine's gramophone has gone to the pawn shop.

Internationally, the festival has never had anything better than Brian Friel's Molly Sweeney, which also marks Friel's debut as a director. Like Friel's The Faith Healer, it delivers contrasted versions of the same story in three parallel monologues. And again the subject is healing; but the question Friel asks this time is whether any cure was necessary in the first place. Blind from childhood, his heroine is a serenely confident woman with a happy marriage and a good job. Believing she has nothing to lose, she undergoes a cataract operation which partly restores her sight, but robs her of the tactile world in which she is at home, and tragically proves that she has everything to lose.

It is probably a mistake to summarise a story that emerges in broken strands from Molly, her husband and her doctor, each of whom has a partial view of the events. What she wants is not a lasting cure, but an excursion into the mysterious land of vision, like an exotic holiday. For her husband, a jobless autodidact who has spent his life on mad schemes, the cure is just his latest craze. For her doctor, an alcoholic former high-flyer, the operation represents a chance of regaining his career. Blindness, in short, is not confined to Molly; the piece is a sustained set of variations on the literal and metaphorical meanings of being in darkness: a theme that goes back to the roots of Irish theatre.

Once again, Friel has achieved a masterwork that dispenses with conflict: thanks, partly, to his extraordinary command of character narrative. The spectator is put through a crash course in the art of seeing, from Berkeley's theories of perception to the concept of 'engrams'. Friel entrusts this exposition to the autodidact Frank, along with enthusiasms for Iranian goats and the African bee; with the result that you respond to his zig-zag thought-processes as comedy while picking up the optical technicalities en route. Catherine Byrne, T P McKenna and Mark Lambert illuminate the text with flawless, heart- searching performances, as London audiences can verify when the production reaches the Almeida on 27 October.

Ion, Euripides's account of the Queen of Athens's reunion with the long-lost son she bore to Apollo, is the rumoured source of The Importance of Being Ernest. As directed by Nicholas Wright in David Lan's zippy new version, it is certainly the funniest Greek tragedy I can recall. Where else on the Hellenic stage would you find a chorus of tourists prowling round Delphi with guide-books, or a hero in the role of a caretaker who goes bananas at finding bird-droppings where he has just swept up? Jude Law's Ion, guardian of his unacknowledged parent's altar, beautifully combines adolescent piety with priggish self-righteousness. He more than meets his match in Diana Hardcastle's Queen Creusa, who executes amazing vertical take-offs from wary domestic gossip to the heights of vengeful and maternal passion. No character, however, is more vividly alive than the imagined Apollo, skulking behind his oracle as the paternity case starts unravelling, and finally sending Athene along to patch things up as his own appearance 'might cause an angry scene'. Not half]

Having enjoyed Tim Firth's End of the Food Chain and some of his television comedy, I had a grim night out at Neville's Island. The tale of four middle- managers who get marooned on a Derwentwater island during a team-building exercise, it displays Firth's gift for scathingly ironic dialogue. But as that gift is lavished on only one character, the play becomes a sequence of numbingly repetitive ordeals for one laughing boy (Tony Slattery) and three stooges. Finally they turn against him and reduce him to tears. As he is the author's only source of entertainment, this strikes me as unfair and ungrateful as well as unfunny.

'The Risen People': Gaiety, 010- 3531 677 1717. 'Molly Sweeney': Gate, 010-3531 874 4045. 'Ion': Pit, 071-638 8891. 'Neville's Island': Apollo, 071-494 5070.