For many theatregoers, Edinburgh exists merely as some artistic Brigadoon. It emerges from the mists but once every 12 months only to recede when the last undergrad theatre company has boarded the southbound train at Waverley Station come the end of August.

My, how drear Edinburgh must be from September to July with nothing to do but look at the rain and long for the Festival.

Don't you believe this.

Edinburgh is home to the world-famous Traverse Theatre of new writing, as well as three touring houses and numerous small theatres. But the much-lauded Traverse is not the one generating the current theatrical buzz in Scottish theatre. Now comes the turn of near neighbour, the Royal Lyceum, to take centre stage.

"The great thing about the start of any relationship," says artistic director Mark Thomson, now two plays down in his first full season in charge at the Lyceum, "is that everything is possible.

"We're just at the start and we're all wide-eyed and lovely and romantic," he laughs, "but you've got to try and hang on to that, because it can go very quickly."

Audience-geared endeavours

From the outside, however, the buzz looks assured right up to May 2004, when Thomson's maiden season of six plays ends with Six Black Candles, a new black magic comedy by novelist and poet Des Dillon. Dillon's play brings the curtain down on a programme that will have presented two world premieres, two American classics and a Liz Lochhead revival - all of which kicked off this past September with the first production of Julius Caesar seen in Scotland for 30 years.

"I like the balance of contemporary and classic, of being classically aware - with Shakespeare and Arthur Miller - but having contemporary relevance," says Thomson. And Julius Caesar bore this out perfectly.

The central pillar of its relevance in still relatively freshly devolved Scotland, is the play's obvious political themes. With Edinburgh's Scottish Parliament wrangling over, as Dickens has it in Little Dorrit, "how not to do it", the play's impact must have even bordered on the journalistic.

"That," Thomson agrees, "drove me to programme it into the season. But there are also more worldwide resonances. We recently went to war because of what somebody might have done. And Julius Caesar is murdered not because of what he has done but because of what he may become with increased power. That, to me, is good theatre: if it makes you go out and think a little bit about the world that you live in.

"I'm not interested," he continues, "in being just an ordinary rep throwing out plays. I'm interested in each piece being taken care of and in this theatre becoming a beacon for artists and audiences. And while the emphasis remains on our own audience here in Edinburgh, with the people who pay to come to the Lyceum Theatre, I'm very interested in having our work celebrated UK-wide and internationally."

From new plays to revivals

That the Lyceum, long an important regional rep, has rediscovered this excitement in itself after many years treading artistic water (the 1960s and 70s saw it become an innovative artistic force under directors such as Bill Bryden) is cause for some celebration. But Thomson has that necessary, if uncomfortable, balance of Cavalier and Roundhead that no artistic director in the 21st century could survive without.

"Scottish theatre - as English theatre - has had big funding problems for a long, long time," he notes. "And when you're fighting just to keep the work on the stage, when all your energies are going into trying to at least sustain what you do, then it's very hard to look outside.

"I was an associate director at Nottingham Playhouse, and I think the ambitions of that place made the building very vibrant. It raised everybody's game. It's about setting targets and believing that it can happen."

The presence of new work in the Lyceum season creates its own vibrancy. While across town the Traverse has marked its 40th birthday with a revival of John Byrne's seminal Slab Boys Trilogy, the Lyceum is stealing - or a least cheekily borrowing - the Trav's Thane of New Writing crown and staging a brand new Byrne play. This staging is something of a bravura move and sure to be one of Scotland's theatrical events of the year.

"It's not every year that a John Byrne play comes along," agrees Thomson, perhaps trying to deflate the hype just a little. "We're not putting it on just because it's been written by John Byrne, we're putting it on because it's a beautiful piece, as only John could have pulled it off."

He describes Uncle Varick, Byrne's transposition of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya to the remote north east of Scotland, with more than a small hint of pride and affection as "a very special piece."

A very special piece, it would seem, in a very special season.


THE SEASON: Following productions of Julius Caesar and a revival of Liz Lochhead's Blood and Ice, the Lyceum season now continues with the Christmas showing of Stuart Paterson's The Princess and the Goblin (27 November to 28 December 2003), David Mamet's 1977 two-hander A Life in the Theatre (10 to 31 January 2004); Arthur Miller's 1949 Pulitzer Prize winner Death of a Salesman (7 February to 6 March 2004), John Byrne's Uncle Varick (13 March to 3 April 2004), and the world premiere of Des Dillon's Six Black Candles (17 April to 8 May 2004).

GETTING THERE: The Royal Lyceum Theatre is located at Grindlay Street, Edinburgh EH3 9AX. From Waverley Station, the city's principal rail terminal, the Lyceum is a 15-20 minute walk or a short bus ride. The No 15 or 16 bus from the top of the Waverley Steps on Princes Street will take you to the Lyceum (www.lothianbuses.co.uk). GNER (www.gner.co.uk), Scotrail (www.scotrail.co.uk) and Virgin (www.virgintrains.co.uk) operate trains in and out of Waverley. Edinburgh Airport lies seven miles to the west of the city centre. Regular shuttle buses connect to Waverley Station (£3-£4). Taxi from airport around £15. Edinburgh tourist information can be found at www.edinburgh.org.

For further information, visit the Lyceum website or call the theatre on 0131 248 4848.