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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Translations
Olivier Theatre  Autumn 2019

Brian Friel's finest play shines through even in an occasionally lacklustre production, making it one of the best options for a theatregoer looking for real quality.

Friel had two brilliant inspirations in 1979, one thematic and one theatrical. The powerful message of the play is that mapmaking is a political act.

In particular, the naming of places on a map asserts ownership of them – when the English set out in the early Nineteenth Century to create an accurate map of Ireland and chose to replace local and traditional names for villages, rivers and roads with English equivalents, they weren't just simplifying but colonising.

Friel underlines the cultural vandalism by making all the Irish placenames poetic and evocative and all their English replacements prosaic. And he adds to the irony by showing the Irish culture as infinitely richer and more sophisticated, even by English standards, than the English.

Much of the action takes place in a village 'hedge school,' an unofficial learning centre where farm folk learn not only basic literacy and numeracy but Greek and Latin, so they can sight-translate Homer and think of classical heroes like neighbours. In contrast the English characters are not only presumptuously monolingual but assertively unlearned.

Which brings us to Freil's theatrical invention, excitingly appropriate to a play about what is inevitably lost in translation.

He calls for the actors to all speak English for our benefit while always making it clear when some of the characters are speaking Gaelic – and what's more, to make us always recognise when characters are unable to understand each other even when we understand all of them.

Director Ian Rickson and his actors achieve this beautifully, as in the play's loveliest scene, when an English lad and Irish lass overcome being unable to understand each other's language by simply reciting a catalogue of Irish placenames, allowing the evocative music of the language to express their yearning and rising emotion.

What might be Brian Friel's one misstep comes when a late plot twist threatens to send the whole play off in a new direction.

I have seen productions more successful in this one at smoothing over that sideways lurch and keeping the play seeming more of a piece. But Ian Rickson seems to lose control here, and the last twenty minutes of the play peter out in unresolved digression.

The production of what is actually a very intimate play sometimes seems lost in the Oliver, as characters entering or leaving take forever to make the long journey on and off the stage.

A strong cast is led by Jack Bardoe as the romantic Englishman, Judith Roddy as the hard-headed local who falls for him and Fra Fee as the translator caught between the two camps, with warm comic support from Ciaran Hinds as the self-appointed schoolmaster and Dermot Crowley as his eldest and most enthusiastic student.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Translations - National Theatre 2019
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