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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Translations
Olivier Theatre  2018

The time is the 1830s, the place County Donegal, Ireland, essentially a colony where the British overlords have just implemented long overdue housekeeping in the shape of mapping out the land. 

Seconded to the temporary service of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, red-coat army cartographers armed with theodolites and rifles roam the counties in Brian Friel’s incisive yet poetic study of the catastrophic politics of language.

In echo of that other monumental invader’s inventory, the Domesday Book, taxation drives the agenda and Irish/Gaelic place names need to be standardised through the lens of the English lexicon.

This raises the question of whose standard to fix in stone: that of the indigenes or the encroachers. It’s a division that will undermine local society far deeper than any merely orthographic debate could.

That clash takes place in microcosm here at the village ‘hedge school’ - the illegal learning centres of the time for the dispossessed, often Catholic, population - where Friel gives all his characters English speech even though they are often speaking different languages to each other, in an overview of both sides of the linguistic divide. 

Things veer from grim to gently comic and back again as the ironies unfold. Ciaran Hinds is the hedgemaster Hugh, who has tempered the revolutionary politics of his youth into his (admittedly alcohol-fuelled) passion to impart learning. 

Even before the English arrive to rewrite the landscape, he knows change is inevitable but he has only his tools of language to guide his students’ different expectations of how the advancing tide of English will hinder or empower.

Hinds’ portrayal is a masterful, understated performance that sets the standard for this superbly cast ensemble. 

As Jimmy Jack Cassie who impishly bandies Latin and Greek couplets around the uncomprehending English soldiers, Dermot Crowley makes a case for the hard-to-change older generation without resorting to sentimentalism, while as the feisty Maire, Judith Roddy heart-rendingly stands up for the younger generation who see English as their ticket out.

Stuck between the two is Hugh’s son Manus, also a teacher, whose hard choices between professional advancement and family ties are soberly laid bare by a vulnerable Seamus O’Hara.

Communication comes in pitfalls of misunderstandings and leaps of revelation as each character hits a point where words fail them. 

Local boy Owen (Colin Morgan), returned as translator for the red-coats, cherrypicks what he translates, Sarah (Michelle Fox) sees the implications of what transpires but is muzzled by her speech impediment, Captain Lancey (Rufus Wright) feels that shouting loudly will make the foreigners understand, Lieutenant Yolland (Adetomiwa Edun) and Maire find a bridge to their budding romance in the common language of love.

Framing it all like a Caucasian peat circle is Rae Smith’s school space set amidst a sprawling gorse landscape backed by swirling, lowering clouds - like the play, both comforting and threatening.

It’s a gift of a cast, and director Ian Rickson knows it. His approach is sensibly hands-off therefore, and in steering clear of good guy/bad guy, old ways/new ways tropes he allows the lilting cadences of Donegal (revealingly Friel’s mother’s birthplace and his own home for much of his life) to create a common voice for those trapped in transition wherever they may be.

What seals this as a landmark production is the cast and director’s respect for Friel’s overlying vision - not as the death knell for indigenous Irish culture and the evils of occupation (and let us not forget Northern Ireland’s current stand-off over Irish in education) but as an urgent warning of the fragility of culture for us all.

Nick Awde

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