Review: Translations, National Theatre ‘The Wrong Production of the Right Play in the Wrong Theatre’

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I suppose it’s not the best of starts for a review when I disagree with the playwright about what their actual play was about but then, hey, given the wave of plaudits that has greeted this production of Brian Friel’s masterpiece, Translations, which is running at the National, I feel this review is going to be out-of-step all over the place. But, anyway, here goes…

Brian Friel once said of Translations, “…the play has to do with language and only language. And if it becomes overwhelmed by that political element, it is lost.” I, however, would argue that this play is about the colonisation of language, and it is through its political elements that it is found. Perhaps I reveal too much of myself here and my own prejudices but beauty for beauty’s sake does not an audience create; it is the political bite in Translations that makes it a masterpiece.

And it is a masterpiece, probably Brian’s greatest work and to hear his words, his dialogue, his love for language – and the Gaelic Irish language in particular – is wondrous. For it is the English colonisation of this language in the early 19th century that is in focus here. And that makes this very political.

We are set in a small rural village in County Donegal in the 1830s and the English army are in town. They’re always nearby anyway, hunting out any sign of rebellion to their invasion, but right now they’re around as they are conducting a full survey of Ireland to create an accurate map of the country, quite probably for taxation purposes, but a key element to the project is to anglicise all the local names of villages and towns.

Owen (Colin Morgan) sees this as his opportunity. He’s a local lad but he’s desperate to get out of Ireland and head to England where it all seems so modern and exciting. He can also speak fluent English, so he collaborates – COLLABORATES – with the English army, agreeing to help them with their project in exchange for money and the hope that he will go on to ‘greater things.’ But there are some lines that should never be crossed and in the Irish fight for self-determinism, Owen will soon find himself with a choice to be made…

But this is all down the line and, in the interim, we are seduced by a budding romance between a local woman, Mairie, ((Judith Roddy) and an English Lieutenant (Adetomiwa Edun) who show up, with great passion and humour, how love can conquer language barriers – but also how we can make mistakes about intent when we cannot understand each other.

And all this is interspersed witty speeches from Owen’s father, Hugh (Ciaran Hinds), and his drunken friend about Greek and Roman history and myths. The inference is that empires are always rising and falling – that the Greeks and Romans thought they ruled the word but their empires both came to an end. The intention is clear – both from the characters and from Brian himself (who was writing this in the 1970s): British rule in Ireland could not last forever. It too would crumble away.

But I can’t help feeling that English colonialism was something quite different for though the British Empire is no more, the position of English as the global lingua franca remains unchallenged. The empire falls but the scars remain. The anglicisation of Irish Gaelic names has not been temporary but permanent.

And it was this unacknowledged destruction of Irish culture that struck me most as I sat in the Olivier – the theatrical bastion of the British theatre world – watching the play.

We’ve been here so many times with discussions about the NT audience, their demographic, and their narrow outlook but so much of this message seemed lost on those around me who were either muttering about how, “language isn’t that important” during the interval, or admiring how funny the play was as the lights come up at the end and they headed to the exits.

This play was such a powerful indictment of white English arrogance, ignorance, otherism, and destruction, and that seemed completely lost on the upper-class British audience. It was so frustrating.

Even an extremely on-the-nose final flourish from director Ian Rickson to hammer home the legacy of these seemingly small decisions (which I thought was way too obvious and unnecessary) didn’t seem to land. Mind you, the audience was largely comprised of a political class who still happily call the Irish war against the English “the Troubles” so what the hell was I expecting?

Should this play have been performed in the Olivier? It is such a revolutionary act, and a play even Brian observed later in his career could, and should, have been written in Irish rather than English, just to make that point clearer. I suppose there is no way we could ever claim that any play is verboten at the Olivier, but I can’t help but feel that such a powerful anti-English play needed better handling if it was going to fully honour the power of its words.

And that wasn’t my only issue with this production, or its position in the Olivier…

Any production that runs in this vast auditorium must rise to the challenge it presents, and this one simply didn’t.

Translations is a very small play anyway. Tiny. It is a small drama about local villagers set in the only communal space in a local hedge school, which is about to be closed to make way for the universal education requirements the English were introducing, It rarely consists of anything more than characters standing around and talking, whether they be arguing or falling in love. But no effort was made to make this an easier watch for those up in the Upper Circle.

I was in about the sixth row of the stalls and it just about worked for me, but I can’t imagine there was much visual joy for those in the rows further away from the stage, especially as the set design seemed to be completely transferred from the set of Common. It was mud, endless mud. Not a blade of grass to be seen. This is rural Ireland as a drudgery mess.

(In truth, this could be seen as clever commentary from designer, Rae Smith, as this portrayal of Country Donegal jarred with the dialogue in the play that kept referring to how lush the land was, and how ripe and successful the harvest had been. But much if not all of this play is about foreshadowing. The play is set in 1833 and the disasters of the famines of the 1840s lay unseen in the future, and the mass emigration to the United States is only referred to passively.)

But though it may be clever, Ian Rickson does not, for me, make this an Olivier production. But not even that is his most grievous error. That, unequivocally, comes in the depiction of the mute woman in this play, Sarah (Michelle Fox).

Even now, maybe over a week since I saw the show, it’s hard for me to string together in coherent phrases how disgusted and shell-shocked I was by such an offensive, marginalising, archaic depiction of a mute woman. I do not in any way blame the actor for this; the responsibility lies with the director and any others from Olivier management who saw this and did not challenge it.

Here, Sarah is played as if she is severely disabled, constantly flinging her limbs around as is she has little control of them. And she is painfully infantilised, as if being mute means she has the emotional maturity of a twelve-year old girl. I mean, why? None of this is necessary.

In fact, I refer you to Krystina Nellis’s far more eloquent blog specifically on this point. Why oh why oh why was not an actor with diverse abilities cast for this part? Why is the National continuing to perpetuate and normalise such dangerous and offensive stereotyping? This, if ever it needs it to be plainly explained, shows why the lack of diversity and inclusion on creatives with disabilities is as problematic as it is.

This is an incredibly beautiful play – Brian Friel is a master, and Translations blends pain and patriotism together in the most unexpected of ways. Its examination of language is remarkable but there can be no doubt of the political aim of this play, and so much about this production – its location, its design and its representation – lets it down. Given the power of its message, this play deserved far better.

National Theatre, London, to August 11, 2018.
Tickets from £15.
All production images by Catherine Ashmore.

Production Team
Director: Ian Rickson
Designer: Rae Smith
Lighting Designer: Neil Austin
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Sound Designer: Ian Dickinson

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