Review - Translations returns to the National Theatre

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

It couldn't be more timely for the National Theatre to be reviving its stirring, magnificent 2018 production of Brian Friel's Translations at this precarious point in our national history when Britain's tortuous relationship with Ireland is being recalibrated once again in the ongoing arrangements being negotiated for our departure from the European Union.

Friel's history play, set in a hedge-school (an unlicensed, makeshift rural school) in a Gaelic speaking community in Baile Beag (Ballybeg) in 1833, is about many things, but not least the relationship of Ireland and Britain at a previous tipping point in their shared histories and unshared languages.

This is precisely the sort of play and exactly the sort of gesture that puts the national into the National Theatre. Originally premiered in Derry in Northern Ireland in 1980, the play received its London debut at Hampstead Theatre in 1981 in a production that subsequently transferred to the National's Lyttelton; in the years since, it has become nothing less than a modern classic, appearing on the NT's own NT2000 list of the most significant 100 plays of the last century.

Now it has come back to the National, in a beautifully expansive production by Ian Rickson that puts it on the largest Olivier stage. That's quite a step up from the former Hampstead Theatre, which at the time this play was first staged there was sited in a temporary portable cabin (though it may have been appropriate for a play set in a temporary school).

While there are intimate scenes between two characters that can seem dwarfed now, the play is a portrait of a community that feels fully inhabited on this larger stage. Rae Smith's peaty set has an earthy immediacy - you can literally smell it when you enter the theatre - but it also lends itself to longer shots, too, as we zoom out to see tiny models of the village.

But mostly this play's vivacity resides in its pungent use and demonstration of the power of language and communication. One of the most tender and shattering of any love scene in the theatre is the courtship of an English soldier and an Irish woman, where neither can understand what the other is saying. It is played with heartbreaking intensity by Jack Bardoe and Judith Roddy.

Bardoe is a newcomer to the company since this production was originally premiered; so is the wonderful Fra Fee as the son of the schoolteacher who acts as a translator and go-between with the British. Ciaran Hinds remains as the magnificently grizzled teacher.

I missed this production when it was originally premiered there in 2018, so am all the more profoundly grateful for the opportunity to see it now.  It may be a slow-burner of an evening, but it is a piece of timeless, exquisite beauty.

Translations is at the National Theatre until 18th December. 

Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore

Originally published on

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