I knew next-to-nothing about Translations, outside of the fact that it was set in Ireland, years ago. My friend was buying a lot of tickets for the new season of the National, and I decided to take the opportunity to see a play by Brian Friel.
The play is set in a small rural village in Ireland in the 1800s; when the play opens the drama is focused on the opening of a new national school in the area which would close the small village school run by the alcoholic schoolmaster Hugh (Ciaran Hinds) but sustained by his son Manus (Seamus O’Hara). The plot really begins when Owen (Colin Morgan), Hugh’s other son returns to the village after years away along with the English army, in his role as translator for a new map of the area. What follows is a play that explores in microcosm the relationship between England and Ireland, and people and their languages.
I found Friel’s thoughts on language as shown in this play to be really interesting. Naively, and probably a consequence of living in a country that exports its language, I’d never really reflected on the power that is intrinsic to language. How a sense of belonging is crafted from it, and how easy it is to take power away from people through language. When the English re-name the areas of Ireland, they are also removing the history that they have not participated in; Owen and Manus argue over the need to preserve this history, whether it is ridiculous to maintain a legend remembered by so few people, or whether it is key to retaining the land’s sense of self.
Friel also plays with the possibilities of whether it is ever possible to belong to an area that you have taken by force. Young, idealistic Lt Yolland (Adetomiwa Edun) falls for the rural area, Gaelic (despite being unable to speak it properly) and local woman Maire (Judith Roddy), despite the two being unable to really communicate, and Maire long being expected to marry Manus. However, it is made clear that Yolland could never truly belong to the community he wants to; and the arc of history and future hardships are hinted both in the text; with characters fretting about blight on the potato crop, considering emigrating to America and Ian Rickson’s staging of the final moments reminding the audience that England and Ireland’s fraught relationship is hardly a thing of the distant past.
Rae Smith’s design is mostly focused on a small part of the Olivier’s sprawling stage, but is effective at creating the poor, rural neighbourhood. Her work is complimented by Neil Austin’s lighting which can move between somber and romantic effectively.
The ensemble cast are all very strong. Colin Morgan and Seamus O’Hara are both very good as opposite sides of a similar coin; especially as the former begins to realise the darker implications of his work. Judith Roddy is thoughtful in her portrayal of Maire, and Adetomiwa Edun as her counterpart is warm and engaging. I also found Dermot Crowley’s performance as Jimmy Jack, a local vagrant who can recite Ancient Greek and Latin, surprisingly moving.
I’d really recommend seeing this, it’s definitely a play that has left me with much to think about.