Over the last few decades, as we become more globalised, the number of Irish Gaelic speakers is reducing dramatically. Brian Friel’s play which was written in 1980 but is set 150 years prior to that, which examines the state of the language and the importance of preserving it yet moving on, is revived in the Olivier with Colin Morgan making his National Theatre debut, and it remains a timely play.
The residents of the rural Bally Beag are in class at their hedge school as the prodigal son, Owen, returns from a six-year stint in London. He has two soldiers in tow, responsible for mapping the country and anglicising the names of towns and villages to make it easier for the English readers of the Ordanance Survey. But when Owen relays the soldiers’ intentions - while the play is in English, only Owen can speak Gaelic and English, the others can’t understand each other - he embellishes the more political nature of the visit in order to keep the peace.
While they can’t speak English, the villagers do have an obsession with Latin and Greek; everyone from the elderly Jimmy Jack to the drunk Doalty seems to know the origin of every word when questioned by class master Hugh, played poetically by Ciaran Hinds. There is a reluctance to speak English among the older members of the community, yet the youth seem to be aware of the opportunities embracing the culture could bring (see: Brexit).
No one embraces the opportunity more that Maire, who is taken by the British Captain Yolland - and he, her - despite neither being able to comprehend a word the other is saying. There’s a definite definition between love and lust here, as while Maire and Yolland dance and fall into each other’s arms without understanding each other, Jimmy Jack speaks of wanting companionship and “someone to talk to” in his old age. How long would the young couple last without words?
The best moments of the play come when Owen (a shaggy-haired Sherlock-esque Morgan) and Yolland (Adetomiwa Edun) get down the the crux of renaming the Irish monuments. Bally Beag becomes Ballybeg, losing its Gaelic twang. It’s then that Friel is overt about the importance of preserving the past but adapting for the future, and it works. You begin to care about the issues and the people. But when mysteriously Yolland disappears after a night with Maire, it’s ultimately frustrating that you end up with no answers.
The characters are difficult to be invested in for their constant, clinical dissection of language which takes some getting used to, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some good performances here. Morgan brings a warm sense of knowledge and likability to Owen, while Edun and Judith Roddy put in fine performances as the lovers. Michelle Fox is also very convincing as Sarah, a young girl of a nervous disposition and struggles to get her words out
Ian Rickson’s pedestrian production takes some time to warm up to, yet ends with a “do you see what I’m saying?” nod to how timely the piece is, akin to Ivo van Hove’s Trump- scene at the end of Network. The piece is only played out on a small space at the front of the Olivier stage, Rae Smith’s muddy design (which comes with its own musty smell filling the theatre) could easily have worked in the Dorfman for a more intimate feel to the piece.
Image courtesy Catherine Ashmore