BY CHRISTOPHER WALKER
Brian Friel is arguably Ireland’s greatest playwright, and his Dancing at Lughnasa, that country’s greatest play.
Translations is an earlier work by him, and although set in the same fictionalized village of Baile Beg (small town in Gaelic), it is a much more political play. An interesting glimpse into Ireland’s romanticised past.
The National Theatre’s enormous stage can sometimes be a challenge for the more intimate theatrical pieces. It is used to full effect, however, in Translations to create the feel of an 1830s Irish cottage in the middle of a peat bog.
Thanks to Rae Smith’s design you can smell the peat as you come into the auditorium. A rather fitting backdrop to the characters’ poetic but bleak lives – subsisting on milk, potatoes and moonshine.
The action takes place in an idealised “hedge school,” an informal cottage school run by the alcoholic Hugh (Ciaran Hinds).
Here, for the payment of quite a lot of money in the 1830s, some of the villagers gather to receive seemingly random instruction in everything from basic sums to archaic Latin.
But definitely not (despite requests) in English – the ‘language of the conqueror.’ Schools like this existed all over Ireland, and Britain, prior to the introduction of a free education system.
This is one of Translations’ subplots, and Friel takes this as a colonial act, as it inevitably led to the widespread adoption of English as Ireland’s language.
Hugh, and his ever present drinking companion Jimmy Jack Casie (Dermot Crowley), banter with each other in Greek and Latin, generously quoting the classics and fantasizing about the female deities.
The three real women in the play seem to put up with this. One, Sarah (Liadan Dunlea), is only able to speak her name. The other two, Bridget (Amy Molloy) and Maire the milkmaid (an excellent Judith Roddy), seem nearly fluent in Latin.
Maire wants to learn English, and indeed emigrate to America, and when two British officers come to Baile Beg, she soon finds herself attracted to one of them.
These officers have come to undertake the Ordnance Survey of Ireland. They are somewhat cardboard characters representing clownish British imperialism.
The ruthless Captain Lancey played by Rufus Wright, shouts loudly to be understood, even though he has a translator present.
Lieutenant Yolland (Jack Bardoe) is a haplessly naive, if good looking, upper class twit. While the milkmaid happily converses in Latin, these two officers are represented as barbarians having no knowledge of the language (although Latin was compulsory then in English schools).
The British officers bring with them the wonderful Fra Fee playing Owen, who they call ‘Roland’ because the poor dears are incapable of pronouncing ‘Owen.’
Fra Fee is very conflicted in his role as the British official translator, rendering place names into random English.
He develops a friendship with the bumbling Yolland, and is even more conflicted when the Brit is kidnapped (and presumably murdered) offstage for dallying with Maire.
The British then turn from clowns into wicked oppressors, and threaten to shoot every animal and evict each family in Baile Beag unless Yolland is found.
The play ends with modern British soldiers menacingly overseeing the stage with machine guns. Barbarian clowns suppressing romantic poets.
This is the director’s choice. Friel always protested that Translations is “a play about language and only about language.” Not in this production.
Translations by Brian Friel at the National Theatre until December 18.
Go to www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.
Box Office is 020 7452 3000.
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