Theatre: Vikings and victimhood

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AT THE Gate Theatre, Mick Gordon has unearthed a rare treasure of a play. Unearthed is the operative word, for Brian Friel's 1975 piece Volunteers (here receiving its shamefully belated British premiere) is set in an archaeological dig in an Irish city, and designer Liz Cooke has spectacularly transformed the theatre into a gaping, boggy burrow around which the audience sits on stone steps.

For the past five months, Republican internees have been granted daily parole to help in the excavation of this Viking site, soon to become the foundations of a multi-storey hotel. They have volunteered for the work and Friel dramatises what will turn out to be the last day of the dig and possibly the beginning of a grim end for the men. Having ostracised them for their collaboration, their fellow inmates back in the cells are now planning to kill them.

Gordon made his impressive debut at the Gate with Aime Cesaire's Colonialist Deconstruction of The Tempest. He now follows this up with a brilliant, bitterly funny production of a play that has a hefty smack of Hamlet with its open grave-like setting, dominated by a Viking skeleton, and the goading, anarchic presence of Keeney, a bank clerk turned gunman, who lashes the play into life. All savage levity and menacing waggishness in Patrick O'Kane's stunning performance, Keeney has borrowed Hamlet's improvisatory "antic disposition" as a way of keeping his anger unblunted.

As with the "Bog" poems in Seamus Heaney's North, the archaeological setting gives Friel a free hand to explore Ireland's complex relationship to its own history. The Viking skeleton, christened Leif, is an object of both bantering and serious speculation - each conjecture saying more about the present predicament of the speaker than about Leif's own fate. It is Keeney, though, who has the sharpest insights, detecting with impatience and scorn what he regards as a fatal Irish worship of victimhood.

The drama admirably refuses to settle into predictable patterns. Lovingly pieced back together by Colin Farrell's forelock-tugging foreman, a green- glazed, 13th-century jug stands as a symbol of some species of Irish heritage. You confidently expect that, before the end, this object will be smashed, but the identity of the culprit and what it is that drives him to this action come as a profound shock.

Gordon deploys a crack cast. Playing Keeney's sidekick, Pyne, JD Kelleher hurls himself into their subversive double act with venomous vivacity - hilariously impersonating a prim, fragrant primary school teacher who rejoices in the name of "Tits" O'Driscoll.

It's the second time this year that an early work by a major modern dramatist has hit London audiences with the force of a revelation. Like the belated British premiere of David Mamet's Lakeboat in January, Gordon's pioneer staging of Volunteers is a major event.

To 11 Nov (0171-229 5387)