The Theatreguide.London Review
Olivier Theatre Autumn 2019
Brian Friel's finest
play shines through even in an occasionally lacklustre production,
making it one of the best options for a theatregoer looking for real
Friel had two brilliant
inspirations in 1979, one thematic
and one theatrical. The powerful message of the play is that
mapmaking is a political act.
In particular, the
naming of places on
a map asserts ownership of them – when the English set out in the
early Nineteenth Century to create an accurate map of Ireland and
chose to replace local and traditional names for villages, rivers and
roads with English equivalents, they weren't just simplifying but
Friel underlines the
cultural vandalism by making all the
Irish placenames poetic and evocative and all their English
replacements prosaic. And he adds to the irony by showing the Irish
culture as infinitely richer and more sophisticated, even by English
standards, than the English.
Much of the action takes
place in a
village 'hedge school,' an unofficial learning centre where farm folk
learn not only basic literacy and numeracy but Greek and Latin, so
they can sight-translate Homer and think of classical heroes like
neighbours. In contrast the English characters are not only
presumptuously monolingual but assertively unlearned.
Which brings us to Freil's theatrical invention, excitingly appropriate to a play about what is inevitably lost in translation.
He calls for the actors
to all speak English for
our benefit while always making it clear when some of the characters
are speaking Gaelic – and what's more, to make us always recognise
when characters are unable to understand each other even when we
understand all of them.
Director Ian Rickson and
his actors achieve
this beautifully, as in the play's loveliest scene, when an English
lad and Irish lass overcome being unable to understand each other's
language by simply reciting a catalogue of Irish placenames, allowing
the evocative music of the language to express their yearning and
What might be Brian
Friel's one misstep comes when a
late plot twist threatens to send the whole play off in a new
I have seen productions
more successful in this one at
smoothing over that sideways lurch and keeping the play seeming more
of a piece. But Ian Rickson seems to lose control here, and the last
twenty minutes of the play peter out in unresolved digression.
The production of what is actually a very intimate play sometimes seems lost in
the Oliver, as characters entering or leaving take forever to make
the long journey on and off the stage.
A strong cast is led by Jack Bardoe as the romantic Englishman, Judith Roddy as the hard-headed local who falls for him and Fra Fee as the translator caught between the two camps, with warm comic support from Ciaran Hinds as the self-appointed schoolmaster and Dermot Crowley as his eldest and most enthusiastic student.
Receive alerts every time we post a new review