The Theatreguide.London Review
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
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
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
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.
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