Olivier Theatre, London – until 11 August 2018
The first act of Brian Friel’s great play ends with a shout of “bloody, bloody, bloody marvellous!” And so it bloody well is, this comic-tragic-historic-philosophical torrent of words, feelings, arguments, tyrannies and fellowship.
The shouter of that line, leaping nimbly onto an old deal table, is young Lt George Yolland: an English soldier of 1833, enchanted with what his mission has brought him to. His duty is to rename and Anglicise Irish place-names as part of the ruling nation’s project to make a survey of this wild, ancient, tricky territory. But George is besotted with Ireland’s wild crags and louring skies above the lonely pinpoints of cottage lanterns (Rae Smith designs, perfect).
He is pixillated by lovely Maire, by poteen in a teacup and the prospect of a dance that night at a crossroads whose Gaelic name springs from a long-dry well and a drowned man with a deformity, who nobody much remembers… see how bloody marvellous! When Ireland gets hold of a child of cold careful Protestant England, it brings either loathing mistrust or romantic abandon.
I adore this play, revived lately in Leicester and in Sheffield, and Ian Rickson’s production here, free from directorial vanity, does even better by Brian Friel. Whose diary of its creation, reproduced in the programme, should be read by every aspiring playwright as he frets over “what has been lost, diluted, confused, perverted” in finally shaping it. For it is a play of big ideas, skilfully framed in a story of unconsidered long-ago people, subsistence farmers rightly alarmed by the arrival of surveying soldiery, their blood-red coats a warning and a fear (Neil Austin does a threatening miracle with the lighting each time they appear beyond the misty crags. So red…).
The villagers, Seamus O”Hara’s dutiful Manus and his tipsy learned father Hugh, belong to a hedge-school: one of the remarkable enterprises provoked by the occupying power’s laws against Catholics getting educated, hence possibly disobediant. They fed the hunger for poetry and story with classical texts. Ramshackle old Jimmy-Jack, a fabulously trampish Dermot Crowley, reads Greek aloud, thrills at Homer, lusts after Athene (“If you’d a woman like that at home, it’s not stripping the turf bank you’d be thinking of”) and argues against potatoes and in favour of corn from Virgil’s Georgics. Maire comes in from the dairy for her lesson announcing hersel “fatigatissima”; young Bridget and unruly Doalty answer “Adsum!” to Hugh the master, mute Sarah (a touching Michelle Fox) is coaxed into speech by the patient Manus. The ensemble is tight, as if they had lived on that earthy stage together in reality for all their lives. We believe, English though Friel’s text is, that they are speaking Irish even as Hugh , disgusted by the renaming operation, rails against the imprisoning tongue: “English can’t express us” . There’s a lovely unexpected topicality as he politely explains to the redcoat Captain, “ We feel closer to the warm Mediterranean. We tend to overlook your island”. They are all a bit shocked that the English soldiers speak only their own language, so can’t even converse with them in Latin (“Nonne Latino loquitur?”) The scene where the cultured locals suppress hilarity at the sweating, pidgin-English sign language of the English Captain as he tries to explain the concept of a map is priceless. They, “homesick for Athens”, have more solidity and virtue than the soldiery.
Maire more than any of them feels change coming, as indeed it was: potato blight, famine, emigration, Ireland changing and learning new ways (as it still is) for mere survival. She cherishes the one phrasebook sentence Auntie Mary once taught her without meaning. Which is “In Norfolk we besport ourselves around the Maypole”. Her passionate connection across the language barrier with young George is beautifully, economically written. All through, never a line is wasted despite the cascading wordiness of this play, and when George says, dutifully renaming the place-names, we shudder at his thoughtful young recognition that it is “a sort of eviction..”. And so it will be. The second act darkens, yet ends in a rambling, unanswerable, ancient question.
So yes, the play is a marvel, deeper every time you see it . These perfomances serve it to perfection: Ciaran Hinds is a towering, wrecked monument as Hugh, Judith Roddy a poignant, fiery perfection as Maire. And Adetomiwa Edun gives George a shining, enchanting naiveté to remember. It was time the Olivier had an inspiring success again, and this is it. It ought to run longer. It ought to be in cinemas and touring, instead of that awful Macbeth. But there are Travelex £ 15 tickets, so just go.