Thursday, 21 June 2018
Translations at The Olivier
Several recent productions staged in the National’s Olivier Theatre have failed to comfortably inhabit its vast space. Not so Ian Rickson’s brilliant portrayal of Brian Friel’s wonderful 1980 play, Translations. Designer Rae Smith’s highly evocative set occupies every bit of the huge space, without compromising the fact that the focus of the play takes place down stage in the local hedge school.
A backdrop of skudding clouds and swirling mist, courtesy of Neil Austin’s atmospheric lighting, leave us in no doubt that we are in rural Ireland, County Donegal to be precise. Translations is set in 1833 and Brian Friel more than succeeded in writing a play that, according to the extracts from his “sporadic” diary wasn’t to be just about Irish peasants being suppressed by English sappers, totally about land surveying, re-naming place names or a lament on the death of the Irish language. Although portions of these are all relevant, each is part of the atmosphere in which the real play lurks and Friel has brilliantly written a simple story that hides complicated meanings. To be precise, Translations is about the power of language and its ability to divide.
Hedge Schools in rural Ireland were unlicensed and set up in makeshift locations with the lessons conducted in Irish. The year in which this play is set is one of historical transition when these schools are due to be replaced by State run ones where English will be the official language. Alongside this change, Ireland has been “invaded” by British soldiers who are tasked with completing an Ordance Survey map of Ireland and changing Irish place names into English. Helping two of the Sappers in the role of interpreter is Owen (Colin Morgan), recently returned from six years in Dublin and the bilingual son of the hedge school’s alcoholic headmaster, Hugh (Ciaran Hinds). Meanwhile his older brother, Manus (Seamus O’Hara) has never left home, is the unpaid assistant to his father and is desperately in love with local girl Maire (Judith Roddy). Add to this mix, Lieutenant Yoland (Adetomiwa Edun) a handsome romantic entranced by Ireland and the Irish (or at least one in particular) and the scene is set for an emotional upset.
It would be wrong to single out a particular performance because the entire cast are exemplary. However, Translation’s famous love scene between Maire and Lieutenant Yoland deserves a particular mention. It is exquisite and effortlessly depicts the way their unfolding love for one another transcends any language barriers. Likewise, the scenes between Manus and Sarah (Michelle Fox) when he is encouraging her to overcome her serious speech defect are a total delight. Much of the humour of the piece is supplied by Dermot Crowley as the “unwashed” JimmyJack Cassie, well versed in Latin and Greek but not so au fait with soap and water. It goes without saying that Ciaran Hinds excels in his role as Hugh, whilst Colin Morgan subtly conveys his delicate position as temporary helper to the British and permanent betrayer of his birthplace.
One of the best productions under the mantle of Rufus Norris and well worth the cost of a ticket.