Brian Friel’s multi-award-winning play Translations is considered by many to be his masterpiece. First performed in Derry in 1980, then staged in London the following year at the Hampstead theatre before its run at the Lyttelton, it now returns to the Olivier in an impeccable production, directed by Ian Rickson, that unequivocally confirms its status as one of the great English-speaking plays of the last 40 years.
It is with a certain irony that I say English-speaking, for although audiences are hearing it in English, the majority of the characters are actually meant to be communicating in Irish. Initially this is a tad confusing, especially when a contingent of English sappers arrives who do not understand any Irish and converse solely in English. In other words, foreigners and locals speak the same tongue but without understanding each another. The play, however, is so skillfully written that you soon surrender to what in lesser hands could have been a very awkward contrivance.
The setting is the small, rural farming village of Baile Beag (or Ballybeg, as it came to be known) in Donegal, and the time is 1833. Though the local folk are isolated from the rest of the world, oblivious to everything other than their own hardships and deprivations, several of them regularly attend a hedge school at which, surprisingly, Latin and Greek are taught while English is ignored.
The drink-prone schoolmaster overseeing these classes is a grizzled Lear-like father-figure called Hugh (Ciaran Hinds), whose love of classical Greece has been passed on to his devotee Jimmy Jack (Dermot Crowley), an unlikely Homer-obsessed tramp-like eccentric who informs us that his wife to be is Pallas Athene and that they plan to marry by Christmas. Myth rather than reality is what keeps him going.
Other regular presences are Manus (Seamus O’Hara), Hugh’s crippled older son, who teaches at the school; Sarah (Michelle Fox), an almost mute waif of a girl; and Maire (Judith Roddy), a determined young woman who longs to free herself from the shackles of isolated conformity, and who, like so many Irish of the period, wants to emigrate to America.
The play’s narrative is propelled into action with the arrival of Hugh’s younger son Owen (Colin Morgan). For the last six years he has been in Dublin improving his lot. He's fluent in English, and with a very different ideology from his brother, he returns to Baile Begg as a translator to Captain Lancey (Rufus Wright), a cartographer from England, together with an appealingly free-spirited Lieutenant Yolland (Adetomiwa Edun). Their assignment is to produce an ordnance survey map of the area and to Anglicize all name places.
Romance briefly blossoms with Yolland, who is smitten both by the beauty of Donegal and by the charms of Maire. He can’t speak Irish. She can’t speak English. Yet in the play’s justly celebrated cross-cultural tryst, the couple conveys their passion for each other without understanding a word either is saying.
Though the poetry in the writing here is exceptional, the consequences, dramatically, are disastrous. The vocally challenged Sarah sees Yolland and Maire kissing and, ironically, though practically dumb, finds a way of imparting this to Manus, who was hoping to marry Maire himself after being offered a better paid teaching job at a National School.
The damage is irreparable. Yolland goes mysteriously missing, and if he isn’t found in 48 hours, his superior commander threatens the community with the wholesale slaughter of their livestock, eviction and the levelling of their homes.
Though Friel has disingenuously claimed that Translations was never meant to be a political play, there is no denying it is a microcosm of the problems that have beset Ireland right up to the present. But more fundamentally it is a play about the power and importance of language – both as a bond and as a barrier – and is rich in symbolism. Manus’ disability is endemic of the community’s inability to progress. Yolland and Maire’s lack of verbal communication speaks volumes about the nature of communication. And the name-changing in the map-making process equates to the rape and surrendering of Irish culture, the effects of which still bear scars.
Friel posits many ongoing questions about Ireland and its past but offers no easy catchall answers. Indeed, plot-wise the play’s ending is pretty indeterminate and ambiguous in its message. But there is no denying the resonance of his commitment to the ongoing conundrum of Ireland versus England or the energy of the writing, which is as compulsive as Rickson’s exemplary direction.
My initial fear with this revival was that the Olivier was too vast a space to distil the essence of an intimate tragedy about a small community’s lack of communication and failure to understand the world they inhabit. But Rae Smith’s design – comprising a staircase at the extreme left of the stage almost as high as the auditorium itself, the farm building-cum-hedge school and a marshy landscape with its atmospheric cloud formations – provides an appropriately epic scale to a contemporary classic.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with Morgan as the official translator, Crowley’s classical scholar, Hinds’ poteen-fuelled head school master, Edun’s love-struck Lieutenant, Roddy as the object of his affection and Fox as hapless Sarah, bringing total conviction to every scene they’re in. A timely revival and a much needed return to form for the National Theatre.