The life of Brian and his volunteers

As part of the Gate Theatre's A Home for the Exiles season, Brian Friel's Volunteers is receiving its British premiere. Set on a construction site in Dublin, an archaeological dig is in progress, and layers of Irish history are unearthed: a Norman jug, a Viking skeleton with a hole in its skull. As they work, the diggers question their own histories and imagine alternative stories of victimhood for "Leif" the Viking. As a metaphor, its currency is obvious: Mick Gordon, the Gate's Northern Irish artistic director, believes that the people "at home" are now "involved in a difficult and essential process: the disentangling of personal histories from ideological ones." But Friel's (above) metaphorical template is, with fitting inevitability, something of a relic itself. Volunteers was written in 1975, the same year Seamus Heaney excavated "Viking Dublin" in North. Despite the success of Friel's work here, it's not much of a surprise that it took so long to arrive. His previous play, The Freedom of the City, a thinly veiled response to Bloody Sunday and the Widgery report, outraged London reviewers in 1973; and, on the surface, Volunteers is also very much of its troubled time. The diggers are Republican internees, whose volunteering for a civilian cause has made them marked men in prison. But the play represents a transitional stage in Friel's career. He drew back from impassioned polemics and used the political context to challenge historical determinism through an incisive mixture of storytelling, role-playing and irreverent humour. This oblique and bravely inconclusive approach was met with some bemusement in Dublin. One critic lamented that "the great dramatic subject of internment" hadn't received the "great play" it deserved. But, as Translations and Friel's other subsequent plays have proved, the dramatic subject is just the start; the greatness lies in the ground he excavates around it.

'Volunteers': Gate, W11 (0171 229 0706), Tues to 11 November.