In the same week that Ireland has voted to take an important new step in its history, Brian Friel’s masterpiece Translations opens at the National Theatre examining another crucial moment in the nation’s history – the point at which the might of English imperialism began to erode Ireland’s linguistic as well as its governmental freedom. While recent scholarship has attempted to re-examine the wider effects of Empire around the world, making a case for some of the its modernising benefits, Friel’s play is a reminder that such invasions can also decimate an entire culture.
Written in 1980 at the height of The Troubles, Translations may be set in 1833 but its portrait of the changing nature of occupation is still surprisingly prescient. And while the action is specific to Ireland, the British Army took much the same approach the world over; arrive relatively peaceably, engage local people to help them to learn native customs, before full subjugation, control and, crucially, the subsequent Anglicisation of the area – particularly notable in renaming settlements after existing British towns or translating them to something more pronounceable, anything to help the invaders feel at home.
In Friel’s play, the British army are in Baile Beag one hot summer on a cartographic mission to remap, and consequently, rename every village, road, stream and hill in the area bringing with it an inevitable concern with borders. Accompanying them after a long absence, Owen has been enlisted to act as a translator, returning to the village and to the house of his schoolmaster father Hugh and brother Manus who hold regular classes in Latin and Greek for the community. As Owen works on the new maps with friend Lieutenant Yolland, an attraction grows between the soldier and local farmhand Maire which they both imagine will provide them with escape, despite the language barrier, with serious consequences for the villagers and for the future of Anglo-Irish relations.
Ian Rickson’s engaging new production balances the personal and political extremely effectively, opening out the rich life of the Baile Beag inhabitants filled with a range of feelings and aspirations, along with the increasingly complex cultural clash between old and new, that will have significant etymological effects. It’s not a development that Friel treats as wholly good or bad, and Rickson maintains that balance between the romantic and social importance of traditional modes of living and an optimistic future envisioned not just in Owen’s hopes for a collaborative, cleaner, more ordered way of life heralded by his English companions, but also in Maire’s eagerness to reach the freedom of America.
And the play’s structure reflects Friel’s concern with the way in which sudden changes in wider circumstances can quickly alter the future of the individual. In the early part of the show, these alterations are largely positive as a series of characters arrive into the action. As the class meet in the schoolroom, setting the scene as well as establishing the range of relationships, we must anticipate the expected arrival of schoolmaster Hugh whose importance as a leader in the village, passing on his erudition is contrasted by the permanently drunk and dishevelled figure who eventually arrives, but who is clearly trusted and admired by his pupils.
Owen’s wide-eyed return which follows is a surprise to the audience, and, having never been mentioned, we must get to know him only from what we see of his actions in the story and never from other character reports. It is a moment of happiness for all in which Owen is buoyed by the knowledge that he brings the future with him, while finally the arrival of soldiers Lancey and Yolland are starkly imposing, their red coats a beacon among the earthier colours of Baile Beag, while their friendliness suggests a peaceable mapping party who will soon be gone.
With so many arrivals, the third and final act must rebalance with a series of departures that drive the plot, and Rickson creates a notable shift in tone, suggesting something much darker, and more desperate, almost melancholic as the action, and its consequences, begin to play out. It feels considerably more dangerous, immersed in the tension-breaking rain that is always a feature of a Tennessee Williams conclusion, and bringing a multi-faceted concept of physical, emotional and geographical destruction. And while the play ends rather abruptly, you feel that Friel deliberately wanted to demonstrate a snapshot in time rather than neatly packaged story, knowing that all of the characters have unwittingly contributed to a very different kind of future for themselves, and for Ireland than beckons at the start of Act One.
While these strands of political and social history are clearly there, Friel insisted that Translations is a ‘a play about language’, and here there are further complexities to uncover. Although all the actors speak in English (except where they quote Greek and Latin during their lessons) it soon becomes apparent that within the action of the play they cannot understand each other. Instead the audience is asked, quite convincingly, to believe that the Irish characters are largely speaking Gaelic and the soldiers English, with very little comprehension between the two. Owen’s deliberate mis-translations are a source of much of the play’s humour which is well managed here, while Friel equally never flags the times when the spoken language is exchanged mid-scene, for example when Manus and Hugh speak English with Lancey and Yolland, adding to the tension and sense of alienation between the two sides.
This focus represents the play’s central debate about the association of language and identity, and the extent to which ideas of modernity and standardisation are tantamount to cultural whitewashing. In the renaming of local landmarks around Baile Beag (which itself becomes Ballybeg), we see not just the systematic loss of native folklore but, sometimes quite humorously, the erosion of a more poetic sound for a clunky English replacement, as Hugh complains later in the play. But, there is balance in this argument with Owen making the case that regional names are based on impractical and unscientific stories no one can even remember, and Maire dreams of learning English as escape from the suffocation she feels at home. Friel leaves it to the audience to decide whether the replacement of Gaelic is a travesty or the inevitable Darwininan phasing-out of a dead language akin to Greek and Latin. Do the benefits of world-wide English outweigh the destruction of regional identities?
Spanning these two worlds Colin Morgan’s Owen arrives full of wonder at the home he left years before. Noting the lack of change, his delight at returning is amplified by a sense that he’s bringing progress in his wake, improving the lives of the people he once left behind. Morgan gives Owen an openness and a schoolboy enthusiasm for the work he’s undertaken with the British Army that allow him to act as friend to both sides, but there’s clearly an underlying pride in the beauty of his homeland that drives him to promote the beneficial effect he feels his work will have for the area and its people.
Clinging to his personal roots as a teacher’s son, his work is based on a scholarly rigour and understanding of both languages but as the action unfolds Morgan charts the problematic clash between two different worlds that marks a significant shift in his own character. His reabsorption into local life reawakens latent sympathies that in Act Three suggest Owen’s certainty has curdled and his own ambiguous final moments imply quite a different direction. Having brought the wolf to the door, Morgan’s Owen suggests he must now fortify his home for the greater battle to come.
Like his son, Ciarán Hinds schoolmaster Hugh arrives a little way into the play, and though implied to be a fearsome and academic man, his rowdy love of drink and ramshackle appearance contrast his reputation. Revered and even loved by his community, at the start of the play Hugh faces a bright future with a job leading the new National School and a visible elation at seeing his son again. But the ever-excellent Hinds brings a deep emotionality to the role of a man who can quote reams of classical scholarship and interchange between four languages with ease but needs something more to sustain him.
Hinds suggests a difficult relationship with son Manus, while the arrival of Owen, although tearful, brings with it suspicion and a shrewder understanding of its consequences than the villagers can distinguish. Of all the characters, Hugh is most alive to the destructive march of progress and in a captivating late monologue Hinds holds the audience in his palm with a moving discussion about the loss of customs and identity, where even a beautifully constructed language is unable to resist the changes of circumstance that will mark its end. It’s a very fine performance from an actor of substantial skill, bringing light and shade to a man who has spent his life with one foot in the past.
It is the villagers who open the show and this National Theatre production has created a warmly convincing community of individuals with distinct needs and concerns who discuss the fears of potato blight as easily as Greek gods. First among them is Judith Roddy’s Maire who dreams of a better life and believes that education is her path to freedom. Maire’s uncertain relationship with Manus (Seamus O’Hara) is quickly overthrown by an attraction to Yolland (Adetomiwa Edun) that Roddy makes entirely credible, sweet and sometimes comic as the pair fail to communicate. O’Hara’s Manus is more restrained but there is a sense of deep feeling raging beneath his closed exterior, personally and professionally frustrated, an approach that can make him hot-headed and even cruelly dismissive of the more fragile emotions of those around him.
This is particularly poignant for Sarah, played sensitively by Michelle Fox, a mute girl that Manus is teaching to speak and who is clearly in love with him and has a notable role to play in the action. Dermot Crowley’s tramp-like Jimmy Jack Cassie excels in education and becomes a verbose drinking companion for Hugh, speaking to each other in Latin and Greek – that only adds an additional nonsense to the soldier’s assumption that locals are uneducated and worthy of conquest. Rufus Wright’s Captain Lancey is an ominous presence even when attempting conciliation, while Edun’s Yolland makes for a convincingly lover, someone desperate to find a community and place to feel at home with which he equates Maire’s attraction to him.
After a couple of disappointing productions (Macbeth and Nightfall), Rae Smith’s set creates multiple levels for the characters to inhabit, and, while a tad caricatured, there is a sense of private and public lives happening in different rooms and changing weather across the expansive farmlands beyond the schoolroom – the National does love to fill the Olivier stage with dirt. But Translations is not a play that particularly needs much dressing and Rickson maintains an intellectual engagement with the text, allowing the conversations to draw out the political, cultural and historical aspects of Friel’s debate. It’s well paced, allowing the individuality and emotional arc of the characters to emerge, and for the audience to care, while keep the momentum across the two and half hours that flies by.
After a disappointing year in the Olivier with only Follies to write home about, Translations will be a much-needed success for the National. Friel’s interest in emerging identities and the fragility of local tradition will always feel relevant as political shifts and globilisation challenge our concepts of national boundaries. And while there has been so much focus on the political ramifications of what it means to be British in the twenty-first century, Ireland has spent centuries fighting hard to retain its own identity. As the country moves into a new era, Friel’s play remains at the heart of debate – how can a country maintain its essence while embracing the modern world?
Translations is at the National Theatre until 11 August. Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1