Translations Superbly Maps Feelings Of National Identity
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The recent agonising over the Irish border and the backstop during Brexit negotiations has shown again the force of feelings around national identity on the island of Ireland. Brian Friel's classic 1980 play Translations may be set in early 19th-century rural Donegal, but its discussion of nationhood and cultural imperialism via the importance of language is highly relevant today.
It is set in the poor, isolated yet tight-knit community of Baile Beag (Ballybeg) where magisterial teacher Hugh is trying to inspire a love of learning in his pupils. However, not only are the local 'hedge-schools' where Irish is spoken being replaced by English-speaking national schools, but the British Army Royal Engineers have arrived to anglicise Irish place names as part of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland.
Friel's dialogue is virtually all in English though it is made clear within the setting of the play when characters are speaking English or Irish to each other. Sometimes the failure in communication can lead to comical misunderstandings but underneath there is a tension that has the capacity to explode into violence with a culture under threat from colonialism.
Ciarán Hinds is charismatic as the bibulous, bombastic pedant Hugh, more familiar with Homer or Virgil than Wordsworth, who instils a love of language in his students. He is helped by his lame son Manus (a staunch Seamus O'Hara) who wants to be in charge of his own school so that he can marry his sweetheart Maire (played with passion by Judith Roddy) who is desperate to escape into a bigger, more modern world.
When the other son Owen (an excellent Fra Fee) returns from Dublin as an interpreter for the accompanying British soldiers, Maire falls in love with the naively romantic Lieutenant Yolland (Jack Bardoe making an assured professional stage debut) — making conflict inevitable.
First seen at the National last year, Ian Rickson's superbly balanced production brings out the humour as well as the pathos of Friel's play. And Rae Smith's impressive design of a rudimentary school room amidst a boggy, craggy landscape swirled with mist evokes the remote beauty of a place on the cusp of forced change.
Translations, National Theatre, Upper Ground, South Bank, SE1 9PX, £15-£86. Until 18 December
Last Updated 24 October 2019