Review: Translations, National Theatre

It feels a little bit silly to be writing a review of Translations after its sold-out run last year. Tickets sold like hot cakes, and now, due to what I can only assume is popular demand, Ian Rickson’s smash hit production has returned to the Olivier to knock our socks off once again.

Set in Baile Beag (Ballybeg), a fictional Donegal village in 19th century Ireland, the plot centres on a local Hedge-school. Here, Hedge-master Hugh (Ciarán Hinds) teaches his students, in Irish, everything from Latin and Greek to Arithmetic. After 6 years away in Dublin, his son Owen (Fra Fee) returns with two English soldiers in tow, ready to help translate local place names for the to-be-composed Ordnance Survey Map. Alongside the introduction of British state schools, rendering hedge-schools useless, what unravels is a beautifully complex look at language and landscape – and Brian Friel’s culture-clash epic more than lives up to the hype.

Where to start with the impeccable cast? Hinds as Hugh is a little mumbly and all-over-the-place, but his love for what he does and passion for knowledge is palpable. Fee as Owen, the man torn between the past and the future, is tormented by his position as bridge between the Irish community and English troops. Jack Bardoe is brilliant as the lovestruck Lieutenant Yolland, a young, upper-class romanticist who quickly becomes besotted with Ireland; the language, the landscape and the people. Judith Roddy is the no-nonsense unshakable Moira, until her world changes irreversibly and we watch her beautifully, sadly unfold. There is not a single weak link in the cast, from Seamus O’Hara as Owen’s heartbroken brother Manus, to Dermot Crowley as scruffy Jimmy Jack, the old drunk with a love of the classics – every one of Friel’s characters feels deeply developed.

Rae Smith’s muddy set feels as though it sprawls much farther back than the walls of the Olivier and right out into the green fields of Ireland, as characters appear over the hill, dramatically backlit by Neil Austin. In Hugh’s farmhouse/classroom attention to detail is impeccable, with stray pieces of straw on the ground and weather-beaten novels stacked haphazardly on a bookshelf. 

The more I think about Rickson’s production, the more grateful I am for having seen it. It’s sharply funny, heart-searingly romantic, incredibly sad, and everything else inbetween. Translations is, quite simply, a masterpiece.

Translations is playing the National Theatre until 18 December. For more information, visit the National Theatre website.