Irish dramatist Brian Friel once said of Translations, “It’s a play about language and only about language.” Given that he wrote it in 1980, at the height of the Troubles, Friel may have wished to be politic, nonconfrontational or perhaps he just enjoyed the disingenuity. For language itself is never merely about the tools of conversation; it’s about identity, power, culture and so much more.
Friel particularly reminds us how English has been one of the most weaponized languages of colonialism, his setting a 19th century Ireland that the English are actively trying to Anglicize. So his play about language could never be just that. Translations was and remains dense, twisty, thought-provoking, soul-searching, deeply resonant and richly rewarding.
Director Ian Rickson, his designers and excellent ensemble offer a version of the play that wears its complexity and ambition lightly. It’s a gorgeously staged, vital production, bristling with life and a certain dread. How interesting to see it performed now, when a largely English-led Brexit has again been threatening peace on the island of Ireland. Again, Friel might have said “It’s not about that,” though it certainly hangs in the auditorium and amid the dark skies at the back of the stage.
The setting is the fictional village of Ballybeg, County Donegal, in 1833. Ciarán Hinds is Hugh, the perpetually sozzled “master” of an independent hedge school, teaching locals in their native tongue. Hugh devotes his energies and enthusiasm to Greek and Latin — glorying in the past — and will not teach English, much to the chagrin of at least one of his young pupils, Maire (Judith Roddy), who dreams of escaping to America. Yet he’s also a reluctant pragmatist, and has accepted an offer to run the new English-language school that’s about to open.
These so-called national schools are a major tranche of the attempted Anglicization of the country. Another comes in the form of the newly arrived soldiers, led by a cartographer charged with creating an ordnance survey map of the country, complete with a retooling of its place names from Irish to English. One of Hugh’s sons, Manus (Seamus O’Hara), teaches by his side; the other, Owen (Fra Fee), has just returned from Dublin in the company of the English, for whom he’s acting as interpreter.
All the material is here for a fascinating dialogue, across nations and generations, between family members and would-be lovers. Friel’s inspired touch was to highlight the Irish and English characters’ inability to understand each other (while all the actors speak English), with myriad results: ironic drama (the English captain’s introduction to the locals of his evidently hostile intentions, which Owen softens in his translation), endless comedy and swirling romance as Maire and the English cartographer, Lieutenant Yolland (Jack Bardoe), stumble sweetly toward each other without understanding a single word they’re saying. There’s irony in this scene, too, as the rural convert romantically states his desire to live in the village forever, and she cooingly implores him to take her away.
As Hugh and his scholarly tramp of a friend Jimmy Jack (Dermot Crowley) bask in Homer, and the teacher constantly challenges his students to translate or derivate words, the sheer joy in language infuses the play; but so, too, does its ability to divide. Even Owen, stuck in the middle of numerous conflicts, announces his new job as “translating the quaint, archaic tongue you people insist on speaking into the King’s good English.” He turns a blind eye to the fact that his bosses constantly call him Roland.
The nuance of the play has to be reflected in the performances. Hinds’ Hugh has a gruff, tainted magnificence about him — he roars like a landlocked Ahab — proud, defiant, but also alert to the danger that if people don’t refresh the images of their past, through language, “we fossilize.” The actor also demonstrates that difficult ability to portray the functioning drunk.
Alongside him, Crowley is superb value as the Homer-loving sad sack who dreams of marrying Athene, and Roddy and Bardoe are very affecting as the doomed lovers. But this is very much a group enterprise.
Rae Smith’s set takes full advantage of the National’s giant Olivier stage: the scruffy barn that doubles as the school to the fore, reminding us of the poverty of the area (with the Great Famine just around the corner), surrounded by intimations of the countryside, evocatively lit by Neil Austin, from which characters emerge with a heroic mystery and majesty, as if stepping out of the Classics themselves.
Venue: National Theatre, London
Cast: Jack Bardoe, Dermot Crowley, Liadán Dunlea, Fra Fee, Ciarán Hinds, Amy Molloy , Julian Moore-Cook, Seamus O’Hara, Judith Roddy, Rufus Wright
Playwright: Brian Friel
Director: Ian Rickson
Set and costume designer: Rae Smith
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Sound designer: Ian Dickinson
Presented by The National Theatre