Translations – National Theatre

Translations - National Theatre (Catherine Ashmore)

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    

About Maryam Philpott

This site takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over a thousand shows in that time. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

12 responses to “Translations – National Theatre

  • The Lieutenant of Inishmore – Noel Coward Theatre | Cultural Capital

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  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    I liked this a lot. For one thing Ciaran Hinds is always good value but, more importantly, it was great to finally see a play I’ve read a few times brought to life.

    “Owen is buoyed by the knowledge that he brings the future with him”

    Is the future already in the big cities, I wondered. Owen has been in Dublin and perhaps English was already the main language there, in which case he probably thinks he’s bringing civilisation to Baile Beag.

    “while Friel equally never flags the times when the spoken language is exchanged mid-scene,”

    It can sometimes be hard to work out which language is being spoken – until you realise that almost nobody speaks good English so you just have to assume they’re speaking Irish. This led to a false insight on my part at the beginning, when Manus is getting Sarah Johnny Sally to say her name. In Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth (An Béal Bocht) an education inspector does the rounds making sure that everyone speaks English and dispensing monetary encouragement to those who do. He is, however, lazy so all he ever does is ask ‘Phwat is your name?’ and the protagonist, knowing this, drills all the children to reply ‘My nam is Jams O’Donnell’. It’s inconceivable that Friel wouldn’t have known this novel so I guessed that it was an influence – until I realised that Sarah would have been announcing her name in Irish. It might still have been influential – and The Poor Mouth is worth a read if you don’t already know it.

    “by an attraction to Yolland (Adetomiwa Edun) that Roddy makes entirely credible, sweet and sometimes comic as the pair fail to communicate”

    Watching this scene I was even more confident that Steven Moffat would have been influenced by it when writing the episode of Coupling where Jeff and the Israeli girl speak at cross purposes but still manage to enthral each other (episode: The Girl with Two Breasts).

    “Rufus Wright’s Captain Lancey is an ominous presence even when attempting conciliation”

    Rufus Wright was the original Harry in The One. I wondered where I’d seen him before.

    “But Translations is not a play that particularly needs much dressing and Rickson maintains an intellectual engagement with the text,”

    That is absolutely what I loved about it. I’m sure Friel is right when he asserts the play is about language; and over-dressing would spoil that. As I said elsewhere, there is no great animosity in Baile Beag – the problems are outside, either in the unstoppable forces emanating from Dublin and London or, closer to home, in the activities of the shadowy Donnelly twins. The catalyst for the tragedy, far from being antagonistic forces, is the attraction of George for Maire – and the fact that they don’t have the words to express it.

    I also saw The Importance of Being Earnest and Pity (reports in the usual place) with Exit the King coming up on Saturday.

    I’m afraid I can’t share your enthusiasm for Home, I’m Darling. I’ve left a comment under your TRH review when the moderator clears it.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John

      Lovely to hear from you and delighted that you enjoyed this as much as I did. By coincidence I checked your message board last night and saw you had written-up your recent trip so I was expecting to see a comment today!

      It’s great to have your extra insight into Translations, and looks like we agreed on most things. Trusting the text and not trying to do too much pays off handsomely here. We shall see if Aristocrats takes the same approach.

      On Home, I’m Darling I agree with some of your thoughts on the secondary characters, but felt it had a stronger point to make about our romanticisation of the past than perhaps came across when you saw it. Always fascinating when the same show can create such varied response.

      I also saw Pity and loathed it – I didn’t even want to write-up my thoughts on it. By contrast I felt Exit the King handled the absurdist approach to better effect and purpose. Looking forward to your thoughts on that next week.

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    I don’t want to labour the point but I don’t think ‘romanticisation of the past’ – which certainly was a theme when we saw it – is an issue that’s worth a play. Like Sylvia, I remember the 1950s (just) and don’t want them back – just as people who bang on about Victorian values don’t really want everything that goes with that age. I felt that the story of a couple that wanted to bring the 1950s into their 21st century lives in such a wholesale fashion had to be a metaphor for something (after all, nobody really does that for any past era) but I really can’t imagine what that is – and no review I’ve read has given me any clues. I’ll buy the NT programme on Saturday (the Theatr Clwyd one was very disappointing – little more than a cast list with adverts) to see if it sheds any light on the matter.

    I agree; Pity was, ahem, pitiful. I think I was a bit too charitable on the board but a bit less so in agreeing with Billington’s scathing review.

    I’ve just grabbed a standing place for Aristocrats tomorrow evening. It’s dreadfully early in the run but there’s not much else I want to see (except The Lieutenant….and day seats for that are still not lasting beyond the end of the morning queue so I’m going to leave that until next trip). I’ll be back home on Saturday evening so will probably let you know my thoughts on Exit the King by Sunday night.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John, yes the NT programme has some excellent essays which might be illuminating.

      I thought that Wade’s point was quite a useful one – i.e. that our tendency to live in the dreamlike past affects our perspective on reality and the future. The Brexit allusions are becoming tiresome, but there is something here about people trying to capture something long gone.

      And I think Wade is completely clear that the illusory 50s Judy wants to live in is just that. The real 50s was, as you say quite a different experience. So its about how we fool ourselves, how we rewrite our national and personal history to suit ourselves, and how the perspective on women’s roles have changed – whether their choice to stay at home or work is respected. There was certainly a play in that for me. (Sorry to include this here but I can’t reply via Reviews Hub)

      Enjoy Aristocrats and look forward to discussing that next week.

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    “Sorry to include this here but I can’t reply via Reviews Hub”

    I’m a little disconcerted to read that. As you might have gathered, I’m not afraid to say what I think but I’m reluctant to challenge someone’s opinion too robustly if they can’t answer back. I’ll have to be careful what I say in future. I left a comment under your review of The Importance of Being Earnest but it’s pretty uncontroversial: I agree with most of your points about that production, I just draw slightly different conclusions from yours.

    “yes the NT programme has some excellent essays which might be illuminating”

    I read them yesterday and, while they are decent enough essays, I still don’t see the relevance of this information. I agree with most of the stuff about the very real problems of the 1950s – and could mention a few they missed out eg impenetrable smogs before the Clean Air Acts and Teddy Boys causing mayhem. Judy and Johnny aspire to a middle class American Fifties ideal that didn’t reach the UK working class until the decade was long gone – it was already the 60s before people in our street got refrigerators, televisions and washing machines; outdoor toilets were still quite normal and while most people had baths they were often in a bit of the kitchen partitioned off for the purpose as upstairs plumbing was still quite rare.

    “how the perspective on women’s roles have changed – whether their choice to stay at home or work is respected.”

    This was dealt with in the Jessica Mann piece – especially the way feminists of both genders failed to address the housework issue. It’s too big an issue to discuss here (maybe we’ll have a chat about it one day) but there was a certain inevitability about housework being undervalued when the most successful career women saw no problem paying other women a pittance to do it. I remember pressure groups like Wages for Housework which were well meaning but failed to come up with any practical blueprint (Janet Radcliffe Richards is particularly scathing about this group and I’m afraid she has a point). There are, however, individuals who can make reasonable arrangements if they address themselves to the matter of who will do the housework in the world as it is today. My own sister in law brought up three children as a stay at home housewife on just my brother’s wage as a carpenter and Child Benefit; and I have male friend who is a househusband – although, to be fair, his female partner has a rather well paid job. But Wade’s play doesn’t address these issues directly. It’s the overlay of the 50s obsession that makes the whole thing unconvincing to me.

    “The Brexit allusions are becoming tiresome, but there is something here about people trying to capture something long gone”

    Fortunately I haven’t come across these allusions. I’m agnostic where Brexit is concerned but it does get rather irritating when people just assume supporters of Brexit want to live in the past. It’s no more valid than the assumption – which certainly got bandied about in the 50s/60s that people wanting rid of the British Empire were nostalgic for mud huts.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John

      Thanks for this. Reviews Hub operate a comment system but as a reviewer we don’t then respond, it’s now over to the wider audience to debate the play and our review of it.

      I think we clearly disagree about the merits of Home, I’m Darling and probably won’t change each other’s minds,let’s just leave it there for now. But thanks for taking the time to explain your thinking.

      Let’s open this back up to other comments about Translations.

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