Press ESC or click the X to close this window

Translations (Susan Elkin reviews)

By Brian Friel
society/company: National Theatre
performance date: 22 Oct 2019
venue: Olivier Theatre, National Theatre SE1 9PX

Seamus O’Hara, Ciarán Hinds, Fra Fee in Translations by Brian Friel. Photo: Catherine Ashmore


I have rarely seen a play as beautifully lit as this one and at least one of those four stars is for Neil Austin’s lighting designs. The backdrop is flushed pink and when characters emerge out of the darkness at the back of the stage they are bathed in light from which they gradually emerge as they advance downstage. It is an extraordinarily realistic represention of a dark rural landscape and way it is lights at night when people move about in it.

Translations is, probably Brian Friel’s best-known play not least because it has long been a favourite in both English and Drama secondary school exam courses. Here director Ian Rickson and his strong cast make sure we think carefully about every word in the play and of course it’s a wordy piece about words – and language and culture and the intricate relation between them.

We are in 1830s Ireland where the British army, assisted by local civilians are drawing up an Ordnance Survey map, clumsily “anglicising” the place names as they go. Education is a major theme. Local people choose to attend Hedge Schools, effectively evening classes run by a teacher in his own home – one of which provides the play’s setting but change is underway and National Schools are opening nearby. Few of the local people speak any English but because of the teacher, his son and an eccentric local bard they are well versed in Latin and Greek.

Fra Fee is outstanding as Owen, the teacher’s son who returns home after six years and is now working on the OS project. He translates – or rather summarises and reinteprets – between the army officers and the locals. Since the play is actually in English the cast have to make it clear when to assume they’re speaking Irish which works perfectly well and makes for some good comic moments. Fra Fee is very naturalistic and convincing.

There’s a fine performance too from Liadan Dunlea, making her professional debut, as Sarah who cannot speak but is beginning, with help, to overcome her muteness. She uses facial expression and gesture very adeptly.

Dermot Crowley as Jimmy, the drunken but cerebral bard, and Ciaran Hinds as Hugh, the elderly teacher, work beautifully together especially in the final scene when Hinds is high on steps at the side and Crowley slumped centre stage ruminating, crazily, on his forthcoming marriage to Athene. And we are left reflecting on colonial arrogance along with the way language unites and divides people.

A scene from Translations by Brian Friel foreground Ciarán Hinds, Julian Moore-Cook. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

First published by Sardines:
Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
More posts by Susan Elkin