Calling on the fearsome technical resources of the National Theatre, Ian Rickson’s new production of Brian Friel’s Translations is accomplished if not revolutionary.
Set in Ireland’s County Donegal in 1833, it deals with the overwriting of landscapes by empire and the entwining of language with identity. It’s the tale of a “hedge-school” in the community of Baile Beag, run by the florid, alcoholic Hugh and his long-suffering son Manus.
The school is something of a bastion against British imperialism, a place where Greek and Latin are revelled in while English is scornfully sidelined. But calamity threatens in the shape of a group of Royal Army surveyors, sent to replace the County’s placenames with “standardised” English equivalents.
Joining the surveyors is Hugh’s other son, the pragmatic, charismatic Owen, who now works as a translator. The story that ensues blends a comedy of manners with brutality and quiet sorrow, as jokes about language barriers – think starchy British officers pantomiming their way through speeches – ease you into an exploration of the violence of mapping and the perils of nostalgia.
Rickson paces the play’s often-meandering conversations deftly while eliciting strong performances from a seasoned cast. Seamus O’Hara and Colin Morgan are the stand-outs as Manus and Owen, one principled but brittle, the other a glib creature of compromise who slowly rediscovers his loyalties. Hollywood veteran Ciarán Hinds supplies bombast and pathos as Hugh, a man disappearing into his own beloved Homeric myths – his reaction to Owen’s return is especially moving.
Michelle Fox puts in a superb turn as the disabled Sarah, whose struggle to utter her own name encapsulates many of the play’s themes. Judith Roddy is tough but sympathetic as Maire, and Adetomiwa Edun has some great comic moments as the irrepressible Lieutenant Yolland – their romantic othering of each other creates a brief moment of balance between coloniser and colonised.
And then there’s Rae Smith’s set, a square of fairytale bogland from which the hedge school’s foundations protrude like toothless gums beneath textured swirls of cloud (Neil Austin’s lighting is wonderful in its suggestion of vast spaces beyond sight). It’s a daydream Ireland, brought to life with some finesse – the details include rainwater dripping into buckets from the top of the stage.
But like many of the play’s appeals to the dream of Ireland, there’s a vicious secret at its heart, one that turns the language of the stage against the audience. More of that kind of thing, and this might have been a transformative production rather than simply a compelling one.