From the dazzling brilliance of young writers like Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh, to veterans such as Brian Friel and Tom Murphy, Irish theatre is in the ascent. But mention this to Patrick Mason, the Tony award-winner who for six years sipped what many perceive to be the poisoned chalice that is the artistic directorship of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, and he gives you a quizzical look.
"Yes, well, the trouble with being in fashion is eventually you go out of fashion. The danger is that they will turn around and say, ‘That’s it, we’ve done the Irish.’ I think the hype surrounding Irish theatre needs a healthy dose of reality, although it’s remarkable how from generation to generation we go on producing writers who have not so much a gift as an obsession with the brilliance of words.
"You know what Shaw said about us, we never use one word when 10 will do, that’s the great largesse of the language."
In Scotland to direct Irish playwright Tom Murphy’s plangently funny play, Too Late for Logic, in an Edinburgh International Festival co-production with the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company, Mason admires the way young writers like McPherson and Enda (Disco Pigs) Walsh revel in the sensuality of words, but he also worries about the image some plays promulgate of Ireland.
"It’s that ‘funny Paddies’ thing. It’s like the Scots as ‘funny Jocks’ - it makes me cringe," he shudders. "And, you know, if I was a young Scots writer I would be miffed. Look at the commercial theatre - by which I mean Broadway and the West End - and you would never guess that some terrific work is going on in Scotland, too. You have playwrights here of enormous stature."
This is Mason’s fourth production for the Festival since 1994. In 1995 we had his magnificent version of Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, followed by his hypnotic 1999 production of Tom Murphy’s The Wake.
He returns with Murphy’s Too Late for Logic, which opened in Dublin in 1989 with the late Tony Doyle in the central role of a philosopher suffering the ultimate mid-life crisis. Fifty-year-old Mason’s new production is being staged with a crack company of Scottish actors, including Duncan Bell, Jennifer Black and Juliet Cadzow.
"I thought it important not to do it with an Irish company," he says. "With Friel, Murphy is Ireland’s greatest living playwright. They don’t write plays that rely on Irish companies. This is a modern, urban play that could be set in any big university city, say, Glasgow or Aberdeen. It starts from the actors’ own voices."
Murphy has re-worked his play for Edinburgh. "He’s a fascinating writer," says Mason, corkscrewing his elongated frame into too-small a chair behind the scenes at the Lyceum. "Between the play’s first staging and publication by Methuen, Tom completely revised it and then wouldn’t allow it to be produced again.
"After the success of The Wake, the Festival’s Brian McMaster said he would love to do more Murphy. I told him about Too Late for Logic, which is a marvellous piece about a man in crisis, as well as being about the deep burden, the wound of love.
"But Tom wouldn’t release it. ‘Oh, we must have it,’ replied Brian - and here it is. Tom has just finished revising it yet again because he believes that a good play takes at least 20 years to pin down - and he’s probably right."
His plays, therefore, have a profoundly mysterious Chekhovian dimension, says Mason. Yet despite his love for the "works of genius" from the pens of Murphy, Friel and McGuinness, Mason believes this is not theatre’s finest hour.
Just the other day, he remarks, he read a piece by Arthur Miller, in which the great American playwright said: "We will die because of our lack of imagination." You talk to the new masters of the universe when you are looking for sponsorship, sighs Mason, and you find that they regard imagination as some useless hobby, but without it all our lives will fail.
That is why it was such "a killer" running the Abbey, he says. "It was exhausting and I was very happy to get to the end of the six years, but I left the place in good shape. Institutions tend to become sclerotic, so by the time I went we had a whole new generation of actors and writers in the building. I told them, ‘It’s yours!’
"We also sorted out the finances, clearing a 600,000 deficit. In my last year we even made a surplus of 150,000. I like to tell business people that, to prove that theatre folk are not entirely useless."
It was vital during his years at the Abbey "to keep the faith". But it was hard work. After he left, he was given a special tribute award by the Irish Times. His first reaction on hearing the news, he says, was: "I’m too young to die."
He also felt there was some deep irony involved in getting such an award from the newspaper that had been the scourge of his artistic directorship.
One journalist wrote waspishly of his acclaimed Edinburgh Festival production of The Well of the Saints some years ago, that "foreigners are perhaps not the best judges of Irish theatre".
Sure, that’s Dublin for you, grins Murphy. "They kick you in the teeth, then give you an award. Small wonder Yeats called it ‘this rude, unmannerly town’."
Too Late for Logic, King’s Theatre,
Edinburgh (0141-473 2000),
7.30pm, tomorrow until Saturday