Robert Tanitch reviews Translations at National Theatre/Olivier, London
Translations enjoyed a big success at the National Theatre, in the Lyttelton in 1981, when it was directed by Donald McWhinnie and also when Sam Mendes revived it at Donmar Warehouse in 1993. It’s good to see this modern Irish classic again.
The play is set in Ireland in the 1830’s when the Hedge schools were about to be replaced by the new national schools. The children were to be taught not only English but in English: It was also a time when the British army was in Ireland carrying out an ordinance survey and anglicizing all the Gaelic place names.
A grizzled old alcoholic (Ciarán Hinds), a classics scholar, who can speak in Latin and in Greek, runs a Hedge school. He has two sons: crippled Manus (Seamus O’Hara), who also teaches, and Owen (Colin Morgan), who acts as interpreter for the soldiers and helps with the anglicizing.
The political friction, which develops between the two brothers, is exacerbated when Manus’s fiancée Maire (Judith Roddy) who is threatening to go to America, falls in love with an English officer, Lieutenant Yolland (Adetomiwa Edun), a decent chap, who loves Ireland and hates what the British are doing.
Brian Friel gets a great deal of comedy out of the language barrier. The audience readily accepts the Irish are actually speaking in Irish, even though they are speaking in English. The conceit causes no problems whatsoever and works especially well, when we can hear the translator is not being accurate.
There is a very enjoyable scene, when Maire and Yolland talk to each other without understanding what the other is saying. She doesn’t speak English. He doesn’t speak Irish. But because they are both speaking in English we do know what they are saying.
Friel has said that Translations “has to do with language and if it becomes overwhelmed by the political element, the play is lost.”
But, of course, the political element is always there. Yolland suddenly disappears. Is it a crime passionelle? Or is it a political assassination? Either way his commanding officer (Rufus Wright) threatens to kill all the animals, evict all the tenants and level their houses unless he is found.
Dermot Crowley has a memorable role as an old man in his dotage, totally gaga, who loves the classical myths so much that he falls in love with Athena and worries what his future father-in-law, Zeus, might say about their marrying.
The production is excellently acted by a fine ensemble, excellently directed by Ian Rickson and excellently designed by Rae Smith. It looks good on the vast Olivier stage. The sheer size of the bog-dirty land and the enormous sky, with its clouds and mist, give the play poetic grandeur.