Olivier, National Theatre – until 18 December 2019
Brian Friel’s Translations is a rich and complex play and, in Ian Rickson’s production which returns for a second run in the Olivier, its layers are drawn out through the performances of a high class ensemble.
Friel wrote that he did not want to write a play about British oppression of the Irish, about map-making, about place names or about the death of Gaelic. He did indeed write about all these themes, but the play is not tethered by its politics. Instead, it uses the seismic changes taking place in 1830s Donegal to write about people.
Amidst the military mapping exercise that is fixing and Anglicising place-names and the violent attitude of the soldiers towards the peasants, individuals shine through. Dermot Crowley’s fantasist Jimmy Jack, living in a classical world inside his head is funny and unbearably sad. Ciarán Hinds’ dictatorial, bereft schoolmaster Hugh is a raging patriarch on the brink of collapse. Liadán Dunlea as Sarah, symbolically left without language, is fated to experience the worst yet to come. And Judith Roddy’s Maire is destroyed by her love with an English soldier. The love scene in which she and Lieutenant Yolland (Jack Bardoe, in a fine professional stage debut) communicate with no shared language is the deeply moving high point of the play.
The set digs the action into a space the size of Hugh’s cottage, leaving the rest of the Olivier stage to supply the Ballybeg scenery. Rae Smith’s design seems risky, but focusing the play on an interior space under siege makes sense. The Chekhovian detail of Friel’s characters is allowed to blossom, and the production delivers many memorable scenes, from Hugh and Jimmy Jack’s reminiscence of their part in the failed 1798 rebellion to Maire’s unravelling when it all goes wrong and the bleak threats of eviction and destruction from the Army captain.
The second scene delivers a masterstroke of perspective shifting as we realise the characters have been speaking Gaelic, and the English cannot understand what they say even if the audience can. Translation is a masterpiece, a play in which the past and the future jostle for space in the shifting present, and people try to locate their identities as language slips from their grasp.