With the spotlight having been on Northern Ireland at the centre of the Brexit debate for a while now, it seems timely that an important work of theatre from the region returns to the National. After a very successful run last year, Brian Friel’s Translations returns to the Olivier Theatre, writes Christopher Peacock.

Set in a small Donegal village in 1833, the action takes place in an intriguing time of Irish history, between the Act of Union 1800 and the Great Famine. Translations is a simple story of Owen (Fra Free) returning to his village and the hedge school that his father Hugh (Ciaran Hinds) runs. With a new job assisting the Ordnance Survey to correctly map Ireland and help standardise/anglicise the place names, Owen acts as translator between the English-speaking officers from the Ordnance Survey and the Gaelic speaking villagers and family. 

Language is at the very heart of this piece. Although all of the actors “speak” in English for the most part the characters tend to only speak in their native tongue. This leads to a lack of comprehension between the English and Irish parties which naturally provides much of the humour. Hedge schoolmaster Hugh’s love for classic literature leads to most of the villagers having a grasp of Latin and Greek, as he is forever testing them on the etymology of words. Hence, it is only English that is the linguistic barrier.

The importance of cultural identity speaks loud and clear through Friel’s work. You are left feeling that Hugh’s hedge school is the last bastion of a simple life that the villagers had always known. Change is certainly afoot, with ideas of emigrating and a new state school being opened are referred to regularly. The fear of a potato blight is just a nod to the audience that devastation is soon to come.

The performances from the whole cast are exemplary. The staging and ambient sound work draws you in and sits you right there in rural Ireland. Directed by Ian Rickson, the whole production keeps you engaged in the lives of these rural inhabitants. It is an engrossing watch that leaves you reflecting on our colonial history and how issues of occupation and cultural identity are still so important to those in the region.

National Theatre, South Bank, SE1 until December 18th. Times: Mon – Sat 7.30pm; matinees 2.30pm. Admission: £32 – £89. Phone: 0207 452 3000


Photos: Catherine Ashmore