Danny Coleman-Cooke reviews Brian Friel’s Translations now playing at the National’s Olivier Theatre.
30th May 2018
Brian Friel’s Translations was written in 1980 about the 19th century but it still feels just as pertinent and relevant in 2018. At a time when power sharing in Northern Ireland is being delayed by issues of language and identity, this blistering production remains as powerful as it has ever been.
For language is not simply a way of communicating but an expression of identity and politics. Friel encapsulates this perfectly, weaving masterfully between political topics like education, British colonialism and the complexity of relationships that span borders and factions.
Translations is set in a small Donegal school in the 19th century, where everything is tranquil, until English speaking soldiers arrive to map the area and create new standardised place names.
This sets in motion a chain of events, where one of the town’s residents falls in love with a British soldier, and where another is seen as a potential collaborator as the soldiers’ true plans become clear.
There is a beautiful lyricism to Friel’s dialogue which makes it a real thrill to listen to, even when the characters are simply bantering on stage. With a relatively simple staging, the poetry and force of the language truly takes centre stage, and Friel’s words are more than strong enough to carry this show.
The cavernous Olivier space can be something of a poisoned chalice for producers but this production gets it just right, with an intimate stage within a stage where most of the action takes place. The rest of the space is filled with grass and soil, brought to life with some atmospheric fog, storms and some extremely clever lighting.
The cast is sublime across the board, with first-class chemistry and squeezing every moment out of a tricky and often multilingual script.
In particular, Adetomiwa Edun and Judith Roddy are tender and entertaining as the star-crossed lovers, rendered incomprehensible to each other by their lack of common language. Ciaran Hinds is also exhilarating as the charismatic and shambling schoolmaster, giving a classical education to rural Ireland.
My only complaint is the pacing is slightly off; whilst the slow burning first act can be easily forgiven, the ending feels somewhat abrupt and doesn’t provide the payoff that some may hope for.
But these are minor niggles; Translations is a superb night out and a piece of theatrical brilliance from one of the greatest playwrights of his generation.