The civilised, violet seats of the National Theatre’s Olivier Stage run abruptly up against the bleak, peaty landscape of this production of Brian Friel’s Translations. The stage is part rugged landscape and part humble room, the walls blasted away to reveal the sparse inner space, populated by a few stools and a dramatically sagging armchair. The stage narrows into a sharp point that juts forward into the softness of the auditorium like an obdurate, weather beaten chin: it is a space that seems to challenge even before a word of this psycho-linguistic drama has been spoken. Clouds of haze smoke up the back of the stage, obscuring the background, and it seems as though this landscape is steaming, breathing, an ancient and folkloric creature that has somehow surfaced on London’s concrete South Bank.
Translations ambles in its introductory scenes: we learn that we are in a hedge school in rural Ireland, where the school-master Hugh, played with patriarchal conviction by the fearsome Ciaran Hinds, is a backward looking and drunken classicist who enjoys quoting reams of Latin and Greek. Deprivation pervades: economic, social and, most strikingly, physical in the cases of the limping Manus, performed with great dignity and pathos by Seamus O’Hara, and the mute Sarah, Michelle Fox capturing the painful isolation and struggle of one unable to communicate at all. There are some gently comedic moments, but for the most part I felt myself succumbing to the kind of boredom unfortunately native to a great deal of naturalistic and (perhaps overly) sincere theatre. However, I was woken up by Judith Roddy as the fiercely aspirational Maire, who kicks the play into gear by standing up and declaring her wish to learn English. It’s a sharp slap across the face that is swiftly diverted from, but the sting remains of this important first indicator of the deeper psychological and linguistic queries in this play.
It is with the arrival of the English, and of the play’s poster boy Colin Morgan as the prodigal Owen that the production hits its stride narratively and dramatically. Morgan for the most part is excellent as the go-between translator, and his performance develops into a subtle and compelling exploration of character, place and history. It has to be said that his accent work is not perfect: he occasionally worked his mouth so hard around the sounds that upon his arrival onstage, in the company of Sarah and Manus, I thought his character was also handicapped, perhaps deaf. Whilst this makes for engaging post-show cogitations – a deaf character in a play about language might have been very interesting – it is not true to the character and I was momentarily distracted. This settles though, and Morgan is a delightful performer, with an otherwise very well-behaved mouth.
A stand-out performer is Adetomiwa Edun as Lieutenant Yolland, or George as he comes to be known. Edun is a treat to watch from the moment he comes on stage, awkwardly navigating his crucifying sense of shame and embarrassment at being unable to speak the language of the country he has come to map. His final scenes in which he expresses his effusive love of the landscape and of Maire are poignant and poetic, performed with sensitivity and nuance. He is a character caught in history, who fails to read the language of his own presence in the country and the dangerous effect this may have upon the people whose land the army he works for has come to map.
It is the scenes with George that are the most memorable: from his frank discussions with Owen to the astonishing love-scene in which neither lover speaks the other’s language, he encapsulates an openness and potentiality that sours into destruction. His disappearance is expressed in a rather convoluted fashion: Sarah runs in circles round the stage after witnessing the lovers together, then dunks her head into a water trough as it begins to rain. I was left feeling uncertain as to how many days had passed, what exactly had been said to whom and what events had taken place. This confusion might well be part of the inherent structure of the play, yet the performance delivered this in such a way that I was left with only a ragged grasp of what might have been happening. It was an unfortunate instance of the production falling foul of the necessary and all-pervasive ambiguity of the play.
A twin spectre that lingers through this play alongside ambiguity is the clash of the old worlds and the new, of the tyrants Progress and Modernity. The old is beautifully and effectively represented in almost all aspects of the design of this production, including wonderful and evocative live music. The new creeps in almost unnoticed, until the last few scenes are playing out and a strange strip of bright white leds hovers above the darkening stage like the belly of a space ship. This lurking presence in the lights eventually illuminates the entire back of the stage in a shock introduction to a modern military before a prophetic final black-out. These conclusive moments serve as a reminder of the eternal nature of the psychological battle between the mutable nature of language and its intrinsic relationship to our human identity. This is a very strong production of a play that baldly looks both back into the past and forwards into the future, certain only in the ambiguity of both.