VOLUNTEERS
Gate Theatre, London W11
Opened 22 October, 1998

Never have I seen quite such a reinvention of the Gate Theatre's space as that for the belated British premiere of Brian Friel's 1975 play. True, the theatre is renowned for chameleoning its interior to fit the current production, but Liz Cooke's archaeological-dig set is so irregular and seemingly ramshackle that the warning signs outside the theatre turn out to be for more than mere effect. We are informed that we may "sit anywhere where there are white tags", and find ourselves surrounding the bulk of the play's action in a hole in the ground which, as one of the characters significantly observes, is in dimension not unlike a prison cell.

For these diggers, on a Viking Irish site about to be covered by a swanky hotel's foundations, are internees from "the movement", seconded to the dig after public funding has run out. They are volunteers both in the paramilitary sense and thus contemned by the prison officer who delivers them to the site each day and by the ineffectual site manager and for this particular project, leading to hostility from their fellow inmates for their collaboration with (one presumes) this oblique manifestation of the structures of state repression. In Friel's play, everyone gets the chance to feel ground down by someone and morally superior to someone else; even central character Keeney, for the most part so determinedly playing the joker in a scabrous double-act with sidekick Pyne, acquires a steely edge of self-loathing in the second half. Social and ideological constructs clash with individual realities in an Ireland where we are all either prisoners of or collaborators with pre-history.

Mick Gordon's production and his eight-strong cast catch the rhythms both of speech and interaction down to a minute degree. Patrick O'Kane's abrasively exuberant Keeney and J.D. Kelleher's slightly camp Pyne gambol their way through the first half's set-piece role-plays, but Keeney sinks into a mire of despair along with the others as their final return to prison and retribution from their comrades draws near. Even Michael Brophy as Smiler, driven simple-minded by the close attentions of the law, is dreadfully cursed with knowing that he does not know. With an uncovered Viking skeleton lying centre-stage (or rather, centre-hole) amid this tiny province of license for the prisoners, it is fitting that Keeney muses so upon the madness of Hamlet, who, in an alternative version to the story we know (albeit one not directly mentioned in the play), became the first governor of Viking Dublin. To what extent, he implicitly asks, is each of us driven mad by adherence to some particular cause or other?

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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