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Michael Coveney: it's all change in the Irish National Theatre

WhatsOnStage critic Michael Coveney reports back from a trip to Dublin

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The Abbey Theatre in Dublin
© Bjaglin/Flickr

Although you wouldn't know it from the three productions I saw on stage in Dublin over last weekend, it's all change in the Irish National Theatre itself, the Abbey, as they launch a new season, celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising in 1916 and prepare for the incoming co-directors from the National Theatre of Scotland, Neil Murray and Graham McLaren.

M&M succeed Fiach Mac Conghail (who's been the artistic director for twelve years, and the first Senator at the Abbey since W B Yeats) next January, but will take up residency in a transitional period from early July. Unsurprisingly, they say they are honoured and privileged to be appointed and emphasise their commitment to touring and internationalism. The Abbey itself is really two smallish theatres now, the main house re-designed and reduced for added intimacy as an uninterrupted rising auditorium, no circle, with 494 seats, and the Peacock with just 127.

In the first, there's a so-so revival by Conall Morrison of Shaw's You Never Can Tell, a delightful play of legal wrangling, women's rights, a family reunion and issues of paternity, with Niall Buggy in the peachy role of Balmy Walters, head waiter at the Marine Hotel and father of a visiting QC (nicely done by Nick Dunning), who wishes his son had been a barman rather than a Bar man; Buggy gleams and glows in a bald wig which makes him resemble Mr Pastry, or a boiled egg in a white ruff. But why are they all shouting so much?

I am amazed at how "British" and RP the accents of the actors are both in You Never Can Tell and in The Importance of Being Earnest

This week (Thursday to Saturday) the Abbey is hosting an international symposium on "Theatre of Change" covering civil liberties, equality, and privacy and ethics in storytelling. This follows a swift response to last year's moans about gender imbalance in the writers produced there; Mac Conghail has brilliantly turned defence into attack and welcomed the "national conversation," stating a determination to programme more women artists later this year.

Meanwhile, in March, Sean Holmes of the Lyric, Hammersmith, is directing Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars, the pulsating Easter Rising classic – the battle was joined on the streets outside the Abbey and many of the staff were involved – and Joe Dowling, a former artistic director, is returning to direct Othello. David Ireland's Cyprus Avenue, invoking IRA leader Gerry Adams, son of the Easter Rising, and starring Stephen Rea, opens in the Peacock next month in a co-production with the Royal Court directed by Vicky Featherstone (it's at the Court in April).

I love seeing Shaw and Wilde on home territory, but am amazed at how "British" and RP the accents of the actors are both in You Never Can Tell and in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Gate, where Michael Colgan still reigns supreme, only the second artistic director there since Hilton Edwards and Micheál Mac Liammóir opened the place in 1928. We've had some shocking Importance revivals in the West End recently – the ones in which Buggy played Chasuble and David Suchet, Lady Bracknell – but Patrick Mason's is clear, smart and timeless in a semi-abstract setting, though Deirdre Donnelly's Lady B is a mite short-winded (slows things down). Rising star – well, he's been rising for ten years – is Marty Rea as Jack Worthing, a genuine leading actor of style, flair and wonderful technical bravura.

Some Anglo-Irish critics say that the centenary celebrations should be on hold until 2022, the anniversary year of independence, but the Gate matches the Abbey's rebel romanticism in dusting down, next month, Sean O'Casey's civil war tragi-comedy Juno and the Paycock, directed by playwright Mark O'Rowe. O'Rowe's, and Enda Walsh's, contemporary firecracker genius is channelled in a remarkable two-hander at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin OldSchool by Emmet Kirwan.

Kirwan and Game of Thrones actor Ian Lloyd Anderson play two drug-enhanced, rapping brothers living on the edge and finding each other on a night-time, clubbing odyssey through Dublin's mean streets, full of vim, vigour and trance-inducing ketamine. The show's a blast, if an over-familiar one, and will hopefully surface once more at this year's Edinburgh fringe festival.

It's a welcome antidote to the respectable enunciations at the Abbey and Gate and sounds brashly, indecently alive. And it's also part of the Project Arts' own fiftieth anniversary party; it seems only yesterday that Lynne Parker and Rough Magic, and indeed Fiach Mac Conghail himself, were tearing up the dank old premises in Temple Bar which were so beautifully overhauled and improved in a big blue box fifteen years ago.