From across the water, few people would question the vitality of Irish theatre. Over the past few weeks alone, London has seen a spate of new works by Conor McPherson, Tom Murphy, Sebastian Barry and Martin McDonagh (who, with a total of four plays now on at the Royal Court and the National Theatre, is the current young pretender of Hibernian drama, even if he was technically born in Camberwell). Yet at home - particularly during the summer - Dublin's big houses can present rather a dismal picture. Last year, of the two major public playhouses, the Abbey ran an Oscar Wilde, the Gate a Sean O'Casey. This year, the Abbey does O'Casey, the Gate Wilde - as if the domestic big-stage repertoire were narrowing down to a sad, stunted little canon, torn like a rag doll between the two ends of O'Connell Street.
Stylistically and historically, O'Casey is quintessential Abbey fare, but there is a real sense of the Abbey wresting Juno and the Paycock back, particularly after the long life of Joe Dowling's "definitive" 1986 Gate production. Directed by Ben Barnes, the new Abbey Juno is a stagey, self- conscious museum-piece (beginning with a recording of O'Casey himself talking of his "photographic melodrama"), the low-end comedy impacting more than the now-habituated and ritualised backdrop of 1920s tenement poverty.
The Gate worries even less about memories of Rough Magic's beautiful, innovative Lady Windermere's Fan a few years ago. Director Alan Stanford resets it here to a typically glinting, Christian Dior 1947, yet eschews the traditional epigrammatic la-di-da for a romantic-naturalist take on the guts of the moral fable - although the show is perhaps most memorable for Pat Kinevane's shuddersome dandypandy Cecil, and Olwen Fouere's Mrs Erlynne, with her sinuous contempt for the "straw-coloured women" of society.
Happily, both shows are pulling in the punters, but they don't say a great deal about the adventurousness of Dublin's big-house repertoire - particularly with the Abbey due to revive The Importance of Being Earnest in coming weeks, followed by Tom Kilroy's The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde, a new spin on the Oscar-cult, seen from the perspective of the man's unfortunate wife.
Certainly, Patrick Mason, artistic director at the Abbey, has had problems filling the 650-seater main stage. He went in three years ago with high ideals: excavating obscure canonical nuggets like Frank O'Connor's Moses Rock; or launching majestic salvoes like Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author and Tony Kushner's Angels in America. But the public stayed away - and Mason was forced back to the old chestnuts. "The most depressing thing I had to take on," he says now, "was what I see as the shrinking of the repertoire - simply in terms of public tolerance. It's true everywhere: the straight play has taken a lot of knocks for all kinds of complex cultural reasons."
Certainly, Dublin mass audiences have very specific appetites, and you could nearly list on the fingers of one hand the old reliables: Wilde, of course; the violent rosary of O'Casey's epic trilogy; and the lyric- hysteric stage-Ireland of John M Synge. Among the living, Brian Friel is gold-dust (Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Translations, Dancing at Lughnasa), as is John B Keane (The Field and Big Maggie, and his comedies). Even now, Tom Murphy and Frank McGuinness might be riskier than Hugh Leonard (two classics, A Life and Da) or the reviving fortunes of Bernard Farrell's specifically Irish middle-class rib-ticklers.
Unsubsidised popular comedies occasionally honk through the Olympia and Gaiety, but since the demise of Groundwork (who kept the latter going until last year with the rights to Keane's work), the two big commercial Victorian playhouses are looking more to rock gigs or easily marketed imported spectaculars. Even in the mid-range commercial theatres, a "serious" repertoire is hard to sustain.
Absorbing the lion's share of the Irish Arts Council's drama budget (after which subsidies trail off exponentially), the Abbey is charged with developing and indeed defining an indigenous repertoire. As the national theatre - especially under Mason - it takes its imprimatur from founders WB Yeats and Lady Gregory - although Yeats has wilted badly from the mainstage into leafy little endeavours like the WB Yeats Coca-Cola Festival at the Peacock a while ago.
While the Abbey is commonly seen as the site of a lyric, often rural, stage-Ireland, the 370-seater Gate, always with an eye cocked to the West End, is more associated with a slick, reliable product. Operating robustly after 13 years of Michael Colgan's shrewd business, it seems the Gate can do no wrong with audiences: whether it be new work, Irish classics, chocolate-box adaptations, Greek tragedies, the latest Mamet or Art.
While plays percolate between the two houses as freely as personnel (Mason has directed lots of the older Anglo-Irish rep at the Gate - Farquhar, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Shaw), ultimately they are in gentlemanly competition for audiences, performance rights and critical kudos - with Colgan liberally poaching Abbey-stable work, and polishing it up nicely under the Gate's Georgian chandeliers.
For example, Noel Pearson, an Abbey board-member, handles Brian Friel and, while Friel may be seen as an Abbey playwright, Mollie Sweeney premiered at the Gate two years ago - as did Philadelphia, Here I Come!. The Gate's co-production of The Steward of Christendom, by Sebastian Barry, came from a writer who was, until then, utterly a creature of the Abbey.
The Gate has also nailed down an unassailable association with the works of Samuel Beckett. As Colgan says: "I just look at material which is intrinsically good, but which has fallen into neglect - I can't see the repertoire as shrinking. I just think we're in danger of killing the golden goose by over-reliance on supposed fail-safes."
Other "definitive" claims on the national repertoire come from the Galway- based Druid Theatre Co's blistering productions of Synge's Playboy of the Western World, alongside assorted Friels, McGuinnesses, Billy Roches and Tom Murphys (a legendary Bailegangaire) - all earning them the more- than-casual moniker of the National Theatre of the West of Ireland.
Druid's director, Garry Hynes, herself served a choppy three years at the helm of the Abbey (clocking up a "controversial" Plough and the Stars), but she's far more comfortable back at Druid, with a tie-in associate directorship at London's Royal Court. After Martin McDonagh's Leenane Trilogy, she's now looking at mounting the entire Synge canon next year, premiering all six plays on the Aran island of Inishmaan, where the 180- odd bemused islanders, wending their way to the halla after 7.30pm mass, have become the increasing focus of cultural-anthropological benevolence from the mainland in recent years. As far as a repertoire goes, Hynes says: "For any company that takes itself seriously, no play is off-limits, but I don't believe the classics are fail-safe. You really need a very good reason to do them, a perspective that isn't already available."
Meanwhile, Mason, her successor at the Abbey, has to contend with the creaking legacies of a massive institution. Faced with whittling down the permanent acting company, he endures much thorny press, thanks to leaks from disgruntled share-holders. Yet, after vexed tri-partite negotiations between a changing Arts Council and a recently established government Arts Department (and now a change of Minister), Mason is calmly restating capital plans for the main auditorium, universally seen as a chilly, problematic slab of 1960s concrete formalism.
Despite such distractions - which can hardly help to direct a stray thought creatively, never mind a theatre - Mason has kept his cool, chalking up touring behemoths like Well of the Saints, or the contemporary warhorse of Observe the Sons of Ulster (both directed by himself). Given that he has just signed a second contract - ensuring a continuity at the Abbey's helm unprecedented in the past two decades - one can only assume he has attracted board-level support for his plans.
In the meantime, Mason is crafting a director's theatre, tapping the talents of young men like John Crowley and Conall Morrison -whose adaptation from the literary canon, Tarry Flynn, has ensured (among other shows) that the main house is playing a box-office blinder this year (as it did in Hynes's third and final year) - leaving Mason, after a grim end of 1996 (when the basement Peacock theatre went dark), hopeful at last of clearing the deficit.
Although one big flop in the main house could buckle his optimism, Mason is now ghosting "ideas, only ideas" for a series of international classics next year (since Hynes's Hedda Gabler production a few years ago, only Irish work has truly survived the main stage): O'Neill's The Long Voyage Home, a new Cyrano, Friel's Making History or Living Quarters and, curiously, the work of Paul Mercier (formerly the preserve of Mercier's own company, Passion Machine). Yet, lest variety make people nervous, he's also talking about dredging up Synge's Deirdre of the Sorrows and yet another Big Maggie, directed by Ben Barnes.
Meanwhile, the Peacock downstairs premieres a new play every six weeks from a stable including Marina Carr, Jimmy Murphy and Gary Mitchell. Even more vitally, a constellation of independent companies continues to punch out a new, diamond-hard repertoire - from the harshly ironic nostalgia of Declan Hughes, Gina Moxley and Joseph O'Connor to the storytelling styles of Conor McPherson or Donal O'Kelly.
The climate for new Irish work is at its most finely tuned for decades, yet despite the extraordinary growth of the independent companies, few can take on the main houses, where the persistence of such a narrow repertoire makes the industry seem like a resolutely anachronistic, middle-class cultural artefact, cocooned within a protective case of public funding. Faced with the impossibility of supplanting the eternal, interminable classics, most companies eventually make their own claim on them at some stage - often barraged by a new overlay of staging ideas. So it looks like the old chestnuts are here to stay, as long as someone is prepared to attempt yet another "definitive" productionn
`The Leenane Trilogy', Royal Court Theatre, London WC2 (0171-565 5000) to 13 Sept; `The Cripple of Inishmaan' in rep at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, London SE1 (0171-928 2252); `The Weir' at the Royal Court, London WC2 (0171-565 5000) to 23 Aug