'Translations' at the National Theatre - A Review

The National Theatre's new staging of Brian Friel's 1980 play Translations, directed by Ian Rickson, is a supremely intelligent and somewhat demanding evening. It uses language as both a theme and a narrative technique, interweaving worlds and words until you find yourself utterly transported and not entirely sure what you've just witnessed.

Set in rural Donegal in 1833, we find the mostly young adult students of a 'hedge school' beginning the evening's instruction in maths, geography and - crucially - classics. It becomes clear that although we are receiving their words in English, they are speaking in Gaelic - that is, except when they're quoting Homer and Virgil in the original Greek and Latin. Manus (Seamus O'Hara), the bookish, deferential son of the school's main teacher, Hugh (CiarĂ¡n Hinds), makes sure everyone has what they need, especially Sarah (an affecting Michelle Fox), a girl for whom verbal communication seems frustratingly elusive. All seems as good as it can be in a community where they live and die by the potato crop - the incoming blight is constant whisper on the wind, but the Cassandra-like warnings of Bridget (Aoife Duffin) are routinely ignored - and the students get to their studies while sharing local gossip about christenings and the odd activities of the colonising English soldiers down the road.

Suddenly this lively evening is interrupted by the return of Hugh's prodigal son, Owen, who has been away for 6 years making his fortune in Dublin. He is now in the employ of the British army and brings two soldiers with him to his father's house. They are traveling the region, creating a map of Ireland and 'standardising' (or, Anglicising) the place names. Colin Morgan's Owen is vivacious and compelling, and his potentially divided loyalties become apparent when he is asked to act as a translator between the soldiers and his old friends. In charge of the mission is a clueless 'Brit abroad' type, Captain Lancey (Rufus Wright), whose cheerily patronising front eventually turns much more menacing, and working on the place names themselves is George (Adetomiwa Edun), a young East Anglian who appears woefully underqualified and views Ireland and its people with an unbridled and naive romanticism. Judith Roddy is particularly vibrant as Maire, the local woman who dreams of a new life across the Atlantic, and the beautiful scene she shares with Edun is a standout.

The seemingly administrative act of charting the region kicks off a series of events that changes everything for the people of Baile Baeg (Ballybeg).

The action takes place on an expansively earthy set designed by Rae Smith, which uses delicate lighting to create an ethereal atmosphere and an emphatic sense of space. A live band and music by Stephen Warbeck subtly reinforce this throughout. The fan-shaped auditorium of the Olivier Theatre lends an aptly classical feel to this play as it toys with languages ancient and modern, and invites us to question the value we place on certain cultures over others.

Despite being written nearly 40 years ago, the ideas explored feel vital and current. I left the theatre not so much entertained as invigorated; this is a piece that will be knocking around my brain for a while. Like the best art, it was both moving and challenging, intertwining romance, mystery, politics, language and identity in a heady mixture right up until the electrifying final moment.


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