National Theatre, London
Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Ian Rickson
The National Theatre presents a gorgeous revival of Brian Friel’s Translations, a sweet play set in the wee parish of Baile Beag, Ireland, in 1830, just before the infamous potato famine and during the Anglicisation on the country. The plentiful foresight and the vibrant exploration of the beauty and challenges of language make it a play to catch this summer. Ian Rickson directs, with language quite rightly at the forefront, as Irish and English characters come to wordy blows with Colin Morgan’s Owen translating between the tongues. With most of the spoken Irish translated, it is left to the performers to make it abundantly clear just who has understood what, and to drive the play’s plentiful humour home.
Owen, a worldly character for the time having lived six years in Dublin, returns home to a village that quite simply has not changed at all. (Itself a sensation shared, quite possibly, by every Londoner in the audience who heads “home” to rural parts every few months). He brings with him two British military cartographers, the uptight Captain Lancey (Rufus Wright) and the more fanciful Lieutenant George Yolland (Adetomiwa Edun). Yolland is the typical Englishman abroad - incapable of handling his drink and immediately setting his sights on the local female talent, going on to create an unlikely corner of a love triangle with Owen’s lame brother Manus (a gentle portrayal from Seamus O’Hara) and the impressively ambitious Maire, played by Judith Roddy. With eyes on a boat across the Atlantic, Maire's wish is to escape calloused hands at the next harvest.
The two officers have come to survey the land for the six-inch-to-the-mile map being drawn up, and in so doing to Anglicise the renaming of local landmarks and disrupting the blissful peace of the locale. The brothers’ father is the drunken scholar and teacher Hugh, portrayed gruffly by Ciarán Hinds, who spends most of the play trading Greek poetry and myths with Dermot Crowley’s Jimmy Jack Cassie who steals the show with a tearful confession towards the end of the second act.
Translations’ designs are by Rae Smith, herself theatre’s go-to rural scenescape guru of the moment, having only just created the shattered idyll for the Bridge Theatre’s Nightfall a mile or so down the Thames. Smith's designs clearly evoke the countryside's delightful chaos, suggesting world that is akin to intruding upon a remote local pub in the middle of nowhere. A place where there are in-jokes and relationships only born out of those who’ve known each other throughout their lives. Uplit lighting by National regular Neil Austin and violin filled morose sound by Ian Dickinson complete the eerie, mist-filled staging.
It is rare to find a show so good-natured and yet ominous and academic, all at the same time. Come for the raucous humour by the comedy pairings of Aoife Duffin’s Bridget and Laurence Kinlan’s Doalty. Stay for the dramatic, dirty colonialism and the lesson in the pros and cons of multilingualism. Beautiful and daring, go see it.
Runs until 11th August
Reviewed by Heather Deacon
Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore