Translations at the National Theatre
Land and language. Ties that bind people together as communities, as civilisations. Steal one and you can erase the other, or at the very least bulldoze the world into one shape. Colonialism, globalisation and gentrification: all use such methods, violence wearing the mask of progress. Ian Rickson’s revival of Translations – written in 1980, set in 1833 and permanently relevant – explores such brutalities, without ever losing sight of the fragile relationships at the heart of Brien Friel’s drama.
Owen (Colin Morgan) has returned home to the hedge school of his upbringing, where his brother Manus (Seamus O’Hara) is filling in as teacher since their father Hugh (Ciaran Hinds) has become too leathered to lecture. But the protagonist hasn’t come back for a family reunion. That’s merely a perk of his new job – translator for the Royal Engineers, who, without a word of Irish at their disposal, are engaged in an Ordnance Survey of Baile Beag with an eye to “correcting” the names of the region’s lanes and landmarks.
Friel is by no means content to leave his exploration of language to a clash of nations and the destruction of history. There’s the PR spin Owen puts on what exactly the English are doing there when translating for his countrymen; the ways in which the language of love can, and cannot, transcend the words spoken as Moira and Lieutenant Yolland meet; and how the erosion of language can result in words and places that carry weight and power without exact meaning.
Hinds’ Hugh appears to lie at the intersection of all Friel’s key concerns. He’s a man caught between the English of his survival, the Irish of his heart and the Latin of his mind. His words an alcoholic’s ramblings mixed with the sharpness of a scholar, the father is a figure of both ridicule and respect, unable to carve out a role in the new world being thrust upon him. There’s similarly compelling and conflicted work from Morgan as the seemingly bitter city boy Owen, Judith Roddy as the firmly future-focused Maire, and O’Hara as the quietly seething Manus.
Rickson does a wonderful job of transitioning between the humour of the first half – especially with Brit abroad Captain Lancey doing his best impression of your dad ordering in a restaurant on holiday – and the viciousness and creeping dread of the second. The director is greatly aided by designer Rae Smith’s wall-less classroom, the Olivier-filling surroundings of good Irish soil emphasising the porous land/language border. It’s a beautifully judged peeling back of Britain’s ugly – and under-told – past, one that underscores our resulting unstable present with a final military flourish.
Photo: Catherine Ashmore
Translations is at the National Theatre from 22nd May until 7th July 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch the trailer for Translations here: