Mind your mother tongue

A season of plays explores language, identity and nationhood
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The Independent Culture

"From the way people speak, you can still almost say who they vote for and where they come from," says Vicky Featherstone. "The English language is still often about class and perception, often in the worst sense."

"From the way people speak, you can still almost say who they vote for and where they come from," says Vicky Featherstone. "The English language is still often about class and perception, often in the worst sense."

Featherstone is the outgoing artistic director of Paines Plough, the innovative touring and new-writing company. Having been born in Scotland but brought up in India, she knows a bit about the way language defines people, and the dramatic possibilities of this on stage. Yet it took Melvyn Bragg's Radio 4 series The Roots of English - about the history and development of English and its dialects - to crystallise her thoughts into an ambitious project, This Other England.

Ten playwrights were commissioned to write about language; the first four works - by Enda Walsh, Douglas Maxwell, Philip Ridley and David Grieg - are being produced at the Menier Chocolate Factory. "Language has inspired these playwrights to think about identity and nationhood in a way that would never have happened had we demanded a state-of-the-nation play," she says.

In The Small Things, Walsh imagines a dictatorship in a small Lancashire village that has cut out everyone's tongues in the pursuit of silence, leaving only two people able to speakin a mangled, heightened language inspired by the Ribble regional dialect. Walsh says he wrote the play "as a means of escaping my own educated, media voice, but also to explore words themselves: what they are, where they come from, what they do."

Ridley says he leapt on the commission because it endorses what he has always done with language on stage. Mercury Fur describes a futuristic wasteland in which feral teenagers indulge in a particularly nasty game. "History has been destroyed and my characters have completely lost the thread of narrative," he says. "So they use words to reinvent, play games, fantasise and to protect themselves."

The Scottish playwright David Grieg, meanwhile, took the commission much more literally, placing at the centre of his play Pyrenees a man who has lost his memory. The man is visited by a linguistic forensic analyst who records his speech in order to work out where he comes from. "The idea that words are the only clue to who someone is seemed very dramatic to me," Grieg says.

Featherstone celebrates the diversity and the urgency of the responses. "There's an enormous sense of responsibility towards language in England," she says. "I love the deliberate loss of things such as RP at the BBC for instance, and the fact that there is also room for people like John Humphrys to rage against the abuse of that. I think we fight over language in a really positive way, and all the plays reflect that."

'The Small Things', Friday to 28 February; 'Mercury Fur', 1 to 27 March; 'Pyrenees', 29 March to 24 April; 'If Destroyed True', 26 April to 22 May, Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1 (020-7907 7060; www.menier.org.uk)

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