Colin Morgan may have played a young Merlin in the popular BBC series, but he doesn’t need any sorcery to foresee the relevance of reviving Brian Friel’s 1980 showpiece. At a time when the Irish border is once again a source of acrimonious contention “a story about drawing maps and lines across the north of Ireland is going to have an extra resonance with audiences,” says the star.
Although that’s true, this shouldn’t be seen as a story about territory and borders. It’s primarily about language: its beauty, and how when it is corroded (or in this case inked away), far more than mere words are lost.
The drama plays out in a hedge school (where farm families were taught) in Baile Beag in the early 1900s. Owen, the youngest son of alcoholic headmaster Hugh, returns to his small hometown with two officers of the Royal Engineer. They are mapping the Irish countryside for the first time since the Act of Union has united Great Britain and Ireland.
Captain Lancey is redrawing territorial boundaries to benefit the treasury’s purse, and in the process Lieutenant Yolland is charged with anglicising the Irish town names. Owen, as their intermediary, translates between army and his indignant friends and family.
Although both are speaking their mother tongue, we hear both sides in English, making for some lively comic scenes as each misunderstands the other’s woeful gesticulations. But it’s a short-lived mirth, as the harsher realities overwhelm even those with good intentions.
For proud Hugh, the loss of his vocabulary is profound. Through him you see how the language is infused with a rich cultural history, without which he would lose a large part of his identity. Names hold within them myths and stories passed down for generations, which will die away when altered. He prizes them with spiritual reverence, and describes being forced to use new names against his will as linguistic imprisonment. It’s a timely reminder of the subtle ways unchecked nationalism can do damage to those it’s supposedly helping.
Despite all the barriers thrown up by the mismatched discourse, the play suggests that love can overcome the need for language. Romance blooms between the young and wide-eyed Yolland, and Maire, a local girl aspiring to escape her limited prospects. They delight in whatever understanding they can muster, despite its paucity. The idea does seem somewhat idealistic – almost a Disney-esque fairy tale – but it’s played so well that you find yourself believing in it.
One of the most striking elements of the production is the staging. Designer Rae Smith cleverly constrains the action to the small school, marked simply with a low wall. The remainder of the vast, sloping Olivier stage is scraggy grassland over which mist slowly unfurls. Lighting Designer Neil Austin’s broad sheets of light cut through the swirling haze, illuminating an enchanting countryside.
The cast are also excellent in bringing an authentic slice of rural Donegal to the London stage. Colin Morgan excels, but the standout performance comes from Game of Throne’s Ciarán Hinds as the ruddy and defiant Hugh, and Adetomiwa Edun as Lieutenant Yolland, whose bashful idealism enlivens every scene.
This thoughtful revival is a reminder of the complicated legacy of colonialism, and suggests that taking the time to better understand one another could be the key to progress.
Translations is at the National Theatre until 11 August