Sophie Adnitt reviews Brian Friel’s Translations now playing at the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre.
National Theatre, Olivier
Back for another run (albeit with a partial cast reshuffle), the National Theatre’s 2018 production of Brian Friel’s Translations justifies its return to the Olivier stage in spades.
Set in 1830s Ireland, the play follows a rural community dealing with the arrival of English soldiers creating an Ordnance Survey map. The two groups maintain a wary distance from each other until wayward prodigal son Owen (Fra Fee) returns home in the English employ as a translator. Owen is tasked, alongside the English lieutenant Yolland (Jack Bardoe), to Anglicise the place names of the area, in doing so casting off the generations of stories that created these names in the first place. This process receives a decidedly mixed response from Owen’s community, and matters are complicated further as Yolland begins to fall in love with Ireland.
Rae Smith’s excellent set fills the Olivier stage with a churned up but untamed field for characters to trek across and Neil Austin’s lighting design is nothing short of stunning. And still somehow, even in this vast space, Ian Rickson’s production creates the most remarkable sense of intimacy. The first chunk of the play especially holds a certain unexpected warmth, as hedge schoolmaster Hugh (Ciarán Hinds) attempts to lead a class, speaking Latin, referencing Greek myths and popping questions to the pupils, ordering them to find the origins of certain words. Words are at the forefront of this play. It’s a tribute to language that’s almost obituary-like in nature, reverent for the past and the unknown (at one point Yolland quietly echoes the Irish place-names Owen reads aloud like they’re a prayer).
But even with this warmth and these rhythms which seem set into people’s bones, everything is thrown off-kilter by the arrival of Owen. Fra Fee turns in a remarkable performance, playing Owen initially with gregariousness that seems decidedly off, immediately setting him apart from his own family. Later on, he speaks of his homeland with almost a sneer, with the air of someone who escaped their small town for the city and never intended to come back. He’s almost embarrassed of his past and community and openly incredulous towards Yolland’s praise of it. It’s an intriguing and complex portrayal, especially when his decisions finally catch up with him and he’s caught between worlds; Irish and English, past and future, tradition and progress. The thoughts are written clear across his face.
Elsewhere in the cast, Jack Bardoe bestows Yolland with sincerity and youthful openness in his professional theatre debut. Judith Roddy brings a remarkable dignity and nobleness to headstrong Maire, and Liadán Dunlea as skittish, nervous Sarah, whose own words elude her when she needs them the most, is incredibly compelling. The fact that Dunlea fully demonstrates an entire unspoken story for Sarah in the background of her more verbal compatriots – just watch how she reacts to everyone around her – is extraordinary.
Then there’s Ciarán Hinds, who from the moment he appears you fully believe he is there – he is in Baile Beag, in 1833 and there is no audience here, just Hugh fully inhabiting the world of the play. As Hugh, Hinds veers between drunken inadequacy and fierce intelligence as his authority slowly slips away, along with the way of life he’s always known. Towards the end of the play, Hinds as Hugh looks at Fee as Owen so intensely I’m surprised he didn’t burn holes straight through him. His final speech, an inebriated recitation of Virgil’s Aeneid, has a once shuffling and coughing audience silent and spellbound.
“Words are signals,” Hugh says “They are not immortal.” It’s a sentiment that’s half echoed by his son earlier in proceedings, as Owen protests “It’s only a name” regarding the English soldier’s repeated misnaming of him. It suggests that whilst this is a play about words, it’s so much more. It’s a play about inevitability and gradual, unstoppable loss and being torn between one place and another and never quite being ‘enough’ of either. Immensely powerful and impressively staged, Translations more than proves itself as one of the top productions to see this year. Do not miss it.