Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Theatre review: Translations

With the high-profile flops it’s hosted over the last year the usual arguments have come up about how the Olivier’s size and shape make it hard to fit anything but the biggest epic on it, so Rae Smith’s design for Ian Rickson’s production of Translations comes along to comprehensively disprove them: Brian Friel’s play takes place almost entirely in a schoolroom, and that’s what Smith puts downstage, but she surrounds it with foggy moors that suggest the country whose future is being discussed inside it, in ways whose significance is more far-reaching than it may first appear. This is a “hedge school” – a small private school teaching basic literacy and numeracy – in 1833 County Donegal, where a weekly class teaches those of the town’s adults who want to improve their skills. For Sarah (Michelle Fox,) who is almost mute, this can be as basic as building up the confidence to say her own name.

For others, though, like Dermot Crowley’s Jimmy Jack, it’s a chance to brush up on their ancient Greek and Latin literature, and Ciarán Hinds' fearsome schoolmaster Hugh loves nothing more than to demand his students give him the derivations of words.

One language Hugh refuses to teach is English, despite Maire’s (Judith Roddy) begging to learn it so she can move to America. But it’s a language that’ll be needed much closer to home when his son Owen (Colin Morgan) returns after six years in Dublin, where he’s been working as an interpreter for the English army. He’s brought back with him Captain Lancey (Rufus Wright,) who’s making a map of Ireland, and Lieutenant George Yolland (Adetomiwa Edun,) whose job it is to anglicise all the place-names. Friel’s conceit is a simple* but effective one: Half the cast are meant to be speaking Irish, the other half English, but of course the actors are all actually speaking English; so for the audience it perfectly illustrates how they’re all so close in many ways, but the language barrier is a gulf between them – and one the colonisers are using to their advantage.

The play’s first half is absorbing, but definitely a slow burn, as we’re introduced to the setting and characters – the class is completed by Aoife Duffin’s Bridget and Laurence Kinlan’s Doalty, while Hugh’s alcoholism means his other son Manus (Seamus O’Hara) does most of the teaching, his hope of someday marrying Maire always put off by the fact that he’s trapped under his father’s shadow with no real prospects. This takes a different significance after the interval, in the absolutely stunning love scene between George and Maire, who communicate through the few words they know in each other’s languages, and end up just sharing the names of local villages – the names George loves but is currently in the process of erasing.

This relationship in turn sends the story off in another, darker direction, and if the first act was good, the second builds on everything it did while adding a touch first of the romantic comedy, then of the thriller. Friel’s play comes to rather an abrupt end, but given the amount of playwrights who write too many endings to labour their point, it’s refreshing to see someone trust the audience to infer what’s happening and what it all means. Rickson himself has thrown in a last-minute visual moment that was a bit too blunt for some, although I can see, given current events, how a reminder of where things like forcibly changing language ultimately lead would seem apt. Rickson’s production would fit as well in a more intimate venue, but Smith’s design - and the hugely atmospheric work Neil Austin’s lighting does with the clouds of smoke in the background – make it just as at home in the Olivier.

Translations by Brian Friel is booking in repertory until the 11th of August at the National Theatre’s Olivier.

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

*I say simple, but it was presumably a bit too much for one audience member to grasp, as I overheard him knowledgeably telling his friend at the interval that “of course, in reality they would have all been speaking Gaelic!”

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