Translations – National Theatre, London

Writer: Brian Friel

Director: Ian Rickson

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

In the latest episode of his podcast Lexicon Valley, linguistics professor John McWhorter considers what it may take for one language to become universal. Dismissing both Mandarin Chinese and Esperanto’s prospects – the former relying too much on intonation of the same vowel sounds to form completely different words, the latter too reliant on multiple word endings in the style of Western European Latin-inspired languages – he argues that English’s current world dominance is down to its lack of either, making it relatively easier to learn.

Surely a further contributory factor to English’s spread can be attributable to colonisation, though. As the Empire spread, so did English, people having to learn the colonisers’ language in order to survive at all, regardless of the devastation to indigenous language.

Such is one of the underlying theses of Brian Friel’s Translations. Set in early 19thcentury Donegal, Friel places his action in a village being mapped by the British Army, which has decided to rationalise the locals’ varying names for places and geographical features, anglicising them in the process (even the village of Baile Beag in which the action is set becoming Ballybeg, in which Friel set several of his other plays).

Teacher’s son Owen (Colin Morgan), who is being paid handsomely to assist, is revelling in the task, enjoying the research of the etymology of place names and happy to lose some of the more obscure ones; meanwhile, army orthographer George Yolland (Adetomiwa Edun), who is falling in love with the local country and its residents, becomes the more resistant to change.

But the purpose is not, as Owen translates to the villagers, an act of benevolence, but one of control, of authority, of subjugation. Whoever controls the language, controls the world.

The key conceit of Friel’s play, the root of its genius, is that the villagers all speak Gaelic and the British all speak English, with only a couple of characters able to translate between the two – but the audience hears only English. It is the poetry, the rhythm of Friel’s dialogue that indicates to us which language each character is conversing in.

When played for laughs, as with Yolland’s first tentative romantic approaches to Judith Roddy’s village Maire, the effect is joyous – made even more so as the couple’s blossoming love for one another finally allows them to communicate completely even when they still do not know one another’s language. But it also serves to illustrate how a lack of communicative ability can lead one side to believe that the other is inferior.

Under the tutelage of elderly teacher Hugh (Ciarán Hinds) and his son Manus (Seamus O’Hara), many of the villagers are fluent in Greek and Latin, as familiar with the familial gossip buzzing around Zeus and his family as they are the twin brothers who have a penchant for stealing other fishermen’s nets. And yet the English forces – in the personification of Rufus Wright’s Captain Lancey, ignorant in comparison – regard themselves as the rightful superiors.

Friel’s cast of villagers burst on to the stage fully formed, beautifully characterised by an exemplary cast. In contrast, the British officers initially seem caricatured, Edun’s Yolland in particular, giving a very mannered, declamatory performance that almost belongs in another style of theatre. But this is a feint to emphasise the gulf between sides: as Yolland softens, so too does Edun, allowing he and Roddy to fully own their couple’s relationship.

None of the cast put a foot wrong here, and nor does the set design. Rae Smith’s setting of a stone barn classroom among peaty moorland a triumph of evocative scenery in complete contrast to her bin bag chic aesthetic of Macbeth’s blasted heath. Mist hangs in the air around the back of the Olivier stage: supplemented by Neil Austin’s lighting it both reminds us of the villagers’ isolation and the encroachment of British troops.

Written in 1980, Friel was working at his greatest here: Translations is Shakespearean in its ability to flit from humour to romance to tragedy with a word or gesture, of mixing ancient mythology with current concerns until one cannot discern where one ends and the other starts.

But above all, it is a hymn to language, to the barriers it puts up just as easily as it breaks them down. English may have become the world’s dominant language through colonisation and destruction – but it gave us Friel’s best work, and it is hard to imagine a more finely crafted realisation of it than we get here.

Runs until 11 August 2018   | Image: Catherine Ashmore

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The Reviews Hub Score

 A poetic triumph

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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