DramaLondonReviewWest End

Translations – National Theatre, London

Writer: Brian Friel

Director: Ian Rickson

Reviewer: Scott Mattheman

“I am a barbarian in this place,” Dermot Crowley’s Jimmy in Translations, “because I am not understood by anyone.” He is translating from Ovid, but the statement is one of Brian Friel’s defining themes in this play about Anglo-Irish attitudes.

Translations is a common A-Level set text, which may account in part for the audience demand for Ian Rickson’s production, which debuted at the Olivier in May last year. But even without that inbuilt audience, this is a production so majestically delivered that it deserved a prompt return. Now with a slightly revised cast, the firm grasp with which Rickson wields Friel’s language and characters is still evident.

Set in 19th century Donegal, the small village of Baile Beag is being surveyed by the English army, who are creating a map of the whole country. While local records and oral folklore carry multiple names for the same place, the survey demands definitive, Anglicised names.

And while the project is presented by the English army, in the guise of Rufus Wright’s Captain Lancey, as a munificent act, in truth it’s an act of control: whoever decides the language of the land wields the true power.

Language is the primary driver of Friel’s work here, and he has a playful time with it. We hear both the villagers’ Gaelic conversations and the British soldiers as English, but on stage only a few characters can translate between the two. The gulf of understanding is wide – and, as Jimmy’s Ovid quote suggests, brings with it assumptions of barbarianism into Lancey’s view of the Irish.

Jack Bardoe’s Lieutenant Yolland, the army orthographer, cuts an unlikely figure, with his distinctly unmilitary bearing suggesting an academic man who has been drafted into service. His relationship with Fra Fee’s Owen, the local teacher’s son employed to assist with the naming project, displays a charming level of affection between the unlikely pair.

But it is local girl Maire (Judith Roddy) who really steals Yolland’s heart. The back and forth between Bardow and Roddy as the couple attempt to communicate despite not understanding each other’s language is as delightful, romantic and funny as one could hope for.

Fee himself, replacing Colin Morgan, is perhaps the biggest difference between this production and last year’s. Where Morgan’s Owen was a restless soul, briefly returning to his home village on a journey that would always take him elsewhere, Fee has a much more grounded, earthy quality to him, as if he has been hewn directly from the peat of Rae Smith’s countryside set.

That difference plays subtly into the relationships between Owen and his brother Manus and father Hugh, with Seamus O’Hara and Ciarán Hinds reprising their respective roles. Hinds in particular is on ferocious form, as the hard-drinking (but never drunk) hedge school teacher who taught generations of Baile Beag residents to read, write and learn Latin and Greek.

An offstage act of presumed violence prompts repercussions that drive the play’s final act, as Wright’s Captain Lancey turns from smiling benefactor to devastatingly ruthless oppressor. But it was language which remains victorious, even as Rickson gives a last visual flourish to indicate how British armed forces’ relationship with Ireland would come to play out over the following two and a half centuries.

In recent days, of course, we have had to be reminded that the delicate relationship between Britain and Ireland is pivotal to the success of both. Friel’s monumentally sensitive play, and this superb staging, reminds us to ensure that each side understand the other, lest we end up dismissing the wrong people as the barbarians.

Continues until December 18 2019 | Image: Catherine Ashmore


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