It now seems obvious what Rufus Norris was thinking when he programmed Common and Saint George and the Dragon. He wanted his Translations. Because it turns out talky plays about contemporary identity politics filtered through a historical moment can fill the cavernous Olivier. They just need to be crafted to perfection by a writer of sublime insight, intelligence and poetic sensibilities, and directed with a delicate, subtle hand. Tough gig. Maybe just put on Translations, instead?
Baile Beag – soon to be Ballybeg – stands on the threshold of change. The British military has arrived to map the country and rationalise (anglicize) Irish place names. But, really, it’s to rewrite the identity of the place, claiming it for the British Empire. The Irish-speaking students and teachers of the local hedge school – the latter also soon to be replaced by a new English-only national school – struggle to communicate with the soldiers, whose true intentions are deliberately obscured by returning prodigal son Owen’s shonky translation.
Brian Friel insisted that Translations was a play about language only. And it is. But language is our great identity-making toolkit. The act of naming creates places and people. We use it to map our minds as well as our lands – and enforce it on others. None of which is lost on Friel, director Ian Rickson or this production’s spectacular cast. Michelle Fox’s mute Sarah’s first struggle is to haltingly name herself; Colin Morgan’s waif-like, jittering collaborator Owen is unintentionally renamed Roland by cloth-eared soldiers and daren’t correct them.
Language’s mythic function is neatly conveyed by Jimmy Jack’s (Dermot Crowley) sexual obsession with Greek goddesses; and Ciarán Hinds schoolmaster and old soak Hugh’s asserts that Irish has natural affinity with Greek and Latin as better able express eternal truths. Of course, language can do no such thing. It’s made up of meaningless signifiers attributed an agreed meaning by groups of humans. And it is endlessly malleable.
But Translations is brilliant because it’s a play, not a theoretical discourse on the functioning of ideology through language. Its characters embody different problems and points of view without self-awareness. They’re as confused and malleable as the rest of us as they struggle across a shifting geographic and mental map.
Rickson resists the urge to stuff the production with nods and winks to the play’s contemporary significance and lets the words in the actors’ mouths do the talking. His production is an act of trust in the play, the cast and the audience. It gives interesting characters and ideas space to capture the attention and then gives the audience the room to ruminate, too. It’s made explosive by trapping much of the action in small space at the front the stage, enclosing the play’s big ideas in a tiny space, long trudges to the back of the Olivier for entrances and exits suggest an expansive landscape outside.
Rae Smith’s design is equally astute. The hedge school has the air of a First World War trench, the battlefield-like surrounding land turned to mud with only sickly tufts of green. It’s exhausted and ready to die. Billowing smoke and imposing lighting design (from Neil Austin) create atmospheric, oppressive cloudscapes that hint at a mythic past and threaten to consume the scene at any moment. When upright, immaculate Redcoats appear out of the murk, it’s both ridiculous and terrifying, sparking simultaneous laughter and self-loathing in the audience.
While the threat of violent occupation is everywhere, Translations reveals how one culture can conquer another on multiple fronts with guns, glamour, sex, feasts, famines and words.
Translations is at the National Theatre until August 11th. For more details, click here.