What’s in a name? In this extraordinarily rich, elegiacally beautiful 1979 drama by Brian Friel, it’s the key to hearts and history, and perhaps also to a doorway that leads to an uncertain, inevitable and not entirely welcome future. The play is set in County Donegal in 1833, in the small rural community of Ballybeg – or should that be Baile Beag? That, certainly, is what those who live there call it. But English soldiers are on their way, with scientific instruments, a clumsy foreign tongue and a command from the Royal Engineers to impose order on the wild otherness of Ireland by creating the first ordnance survey map. In so doing, they trample over the past, imperialists in a country already in the grip of impending catastrophe: the lethal onset of terrible famine.
Ian Rickson’s production of this elegant, poetic play occupies the National’s vast Olivier stage, so it must embrace the challenge of marrying the intimate and the epic. Happily, aided by Rae Smith’s set, a brooding score by Stephen Warbeck and atmospheric lighting by Neil Austin, it achieves this with a style of spectacle that is pungently evocative, yet surprisingly subtle and unobtrusive. The action unfolds, for the most part, in a hedge school – a small, community-run endeavour offering education for locals, in this case under the tutelage of alcoholic Hugh (Ciaran Hinds) and his disabled son Manus (Seamus O’Hara). It is, in Smith’s designs, a place of dark peat and swirling mist, of wide-open spaces and small, cramped, damp homes. Warbeck’s music thrums with distant menace and the tattoo of military drums, while Austin paints wide skies over the muddy fields, which shift between cold morning light streaked with drizzle to lantern-lit night. When the Redcoats arrive, they are a tide of bloody scarlet streaming over the hillside at sunset.
Thanks to the teaching of the philosophical Hugh, it’s Greek and Latin, as well as Gaelic, that’s spoken at the hedge school, soon to be replaced by an Anglophone national education system. When Rufus Wright’s brisk Captain Lancey and Adetomiwa Edun’s warm, eager Lientenant Yolland appear, they can manage nothing other than English. If they’re regarded with suspicion, Yolland has already struck up a friendship with Owen (Colin Morgan), Manus’ brother, returning to Ballybeg from a burgeoning career in Dublin. Their camaraderie is double-edged, though, not least because Yolland mispronounces Owen’s name as the Anglicised Roland. And Manus’ dislike of the interloper can only intensify when he discovers that they are in love with the same woman – Judith Roddy’s sharp-minded, sensual Maire, who dreams of emigrating to America.
The sickly-sweet smell of potato blight and the shifting bogland between foreign feet brilliantly ally with the slippery elusiveness, even potential treachery, of language in Friel’s writing, with its brilliant theatrical device by which characters all speak in English but frequently fail to understand one another. Rickson’s production is delicately assured and alive to every nuance. The courtship scene between Yolland and Maire, each groping towards comprehension through fervent feeling, is both sweetly comic and desperately moving. And among the final sense of desolation, there is also a shrewd sense of the irrevocable march of progress, and a refusal to sentimentalise coupled with a sweeping evocation of the lure of Ireland’s romance. This is finely textured, deeply satisfying theatre, handled by the surest and warmest of hands, with great intelligence and heart.