Translations (National Theatre, Olivier)

A welcome return for Brian Friel’s masterpiece about 19th century Ireland, taking over the sprawling Olivier stage.

In a forgotten corner of a group of villages, the place is a hedge school, an informal seat of learning, where Hugh (Ciaran Hinds) and his fellow Irish Gaelic speaking friends and neighbours discuss Latin, Greek, and in passing, the British Army who are camped nearby.

This is an Ireland all but gone, where people tend their fields of corn and livestock, and know no words of English. It is fitting, then, that the opening scene has Sarah (Liadan Dunlea), a mute, being encouraged to dig deep and find her voice and name.

Fra Fee as Owen in Translations
Fra Fee as Owen in Translations

Translations is about the clash of language and culture, time and place, and the death of a country which is not just threatened by invaders who wish to “Anglicise” their familiar place names, but by a blight which will decimate their land.

The shadow of both ptogress and potato blight is evoked in both Friel’s words (Maire and the “sweet, sweet smell” of something decaying, something lost) and Rae Smith’s impressive design of the space, particularly effective in two scenes which end each act.

As well as the language barrier – Friel of course wrote the play in English, but with the theatrical conceit that most of the characters speak only Irish – there is a philosophical one.

Rufus Wright as Captain Lancey in Translations
Rufus Wright as Captain Lancey in Translations

Jimmy Jack (Dermot Crowley) is so steeped in Homeric and Virgilian rhetoric he overlooks reality; while Owen (Fra Fee) the son who went to Dublin, collaborates with the British to erode the very traditions of naming. It is fitting that in a scene which spells the end of the peaceful life of the village he translates each displaced name mentioned by the Captain into its original form.

A deeply moving and accomplished play which has a famed love scene of surface misunderstanding but deep synergy between Irish Maire (Judith Roddy) and English Yolland (Jack Bardoe), Translations succeeds because of its flashes of humour amid the slow-burning air of doom which has come to Baile Beag.

Dermot Crowley as Jimmy Jack and Ciaran Hinds as Hugh in Translations
Dermot Crowley as Jimmy Jack and Ciaran Hinds as Hugh in Translations

The cast are excellent, from Dunlea’s silenced Sarah and Fee’s progressive Owen to Hinds’s scholarly Hugh and Seamus O’Hara’s Manus – a man whose bluff exterior hides a big heart.

Under Ian Rickson’s direction, the cast bring together a pervasive understanding of an Ireland long gone: one of tradition, legend, and understanding.

Translations continues at the National Theatre.

Photos by Catherine Asmore.