In 1979 Brian Friel wrote a modern classic, Translations, about the first Ordnance Survey in Ireland carried out in 1834 by the British Army for the purpose of redrawing the map of Ireland and translating the local Gaelic place names from Irish into English. This 19th century military-led manoeuvre proves to be an unwelcome endeavour that exposes the English disdain for Ireland and its peoples.
The play’s action is set in a one-room hedge school in Baile Beag, a village in County Donegal, where children and young adults in rural areas learn to read and write and are exposed to the classics in poetry and literature. We listen with rapt attention as the characters in the hedge school speak Latin and Greek when discussing the etymology of words in ancient history. In particular, the gnarled and disheveled Jimmy Jack Cassie (Dermot Crowley) who recites Homer aloud and delights in his passion for the Greek goddess Athene.
But along with ribaldry and wit, there is also poverty and physical impairment in school teacher Manus (Seamus O’Hara), the son of the erudite but often inebriated Hugh (the brilliant Ciarán Hinds), who stumbled onto Manus’ cradle and rendered his infant son lame for the rest of his life.
Friel’s characters each represent a land that is mired in the past even as it must confront the future. Some of his female characters, the passionate, feisty Maire (Judith Roddy) in particular, support the changes occurring in Ireland: I don’t want Greek. I don’t want Latin. “I want to speak English,” Maire says; while Sarah, a waif with a speech impediment, can barely say her name in Irish.
When the insufferable British Captain Lancey (Rufus Wright) demands “What is your name?“, Sarah falls into silence – a metaphor for the impending domination of an Ireland for English speakers only. The character who has already embraced the English presence is Manus’ younger brother, Owen (the charmer Fra Fee), who bursts into the hedge school fresh from six prosperous years in Dublin. He announces he’s been employed by the British Government to interpret for the Royal Engineers who are already trespassing across Ireland, changing town names and re-mapping territories. Owen works closely with the extremely likeable Lieutenant Yolland (Jack Bardoe) – reminiscent of a young, slim Colin Firth – who soon takes a shine to the irrepressible Maire.
But it is when Owen tries to teach Yolland how to pronounce the Irish names of villages and towns that Translations soars to the heights of its power with the integrity and history of the Irish language. None of its humour is lost thanks to the talents of director Ian Rickson.
The scene made me think of the only American president who understood the eloquence and wit of rhetoric. The Irish-American president John F. Kennedy.
Dark clouds settle over Baile Beag in the second half of the play and, in some aspects, Translations is a maudlin, sentimental tale of a rural Ireland we’ve witnessed before. But in its celebration of the sheer wonderment of spoken Irish – its sounds, its poetics, its lyricism, its beauty – it is a symphonic masterpiece, engaging both the intellect and the soul, never to be rivalled again.
Review by Loretta Monaco
After a sold-out run, Ian Rickson’s acclaimed production of Translations returns to the NT in October 2019. Brian Friel’s modern classic is a powerful account of nationhood, which sees the turbulent relationship between England and Ireland play out in one quiet community. Dermot Crowley, Ciarán Hinds, Seamus O’Hara, Judith Roddy, and Rufus Wright return to reprise their roles, with Jack Bardoe, Liádan Dunlea, Fra Fee, Amy Molloy and Julian Moore-Cook joining the cast. Previews from 15 October, press night 21 October final performance 18 December.
Owen, the prodigal son, returns to rural Donegal from Dublin. With him are two British army officers. Their ambition is to create a map of the area, replacing the Gaelic names with English. It is an administrative act with radical consequences.
Directed by Ian Rickson, with set and costumes designed by Rae Smith, lighting design by Neil Austin and music by Stephen Warbeck sound design by Ian Dickinson, movement director Anna Morrissey.
by Brian Friel
Running Time: Approx 2 hours 30 mins inc interval