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FringeReview UK 2018


National Theatre, London

Genre: Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Political, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Oliver


Low Down

Directed by Ian Rickson and with a fixed Olivier stage, we’re confronted with a panorama of shifting clouds and darkness, partly dry ice in Neil Austin’s starkly beautiful lighting. It plays over Rae Smith’s set foregrounding a hedge school at the centre of a bog and landscape raised evocatively around it. Stephen Warbeck’s music evokes, doesn’t intrude, with Ian Dickinson’s sound equally tuned: adding the plash of raindrops into zinc buckets. Till August 11th.


Three or four of Brian Friel’s plays have become part of our theatrical landscape, translated from the one that so shapes their own contours and nudges ours. The earliest, his 1980 masterpiece Translations is all about that. It’s never long away from the stage, and each return brings new resonances; the measuring poles, like those in the play, keep shifting. The theodolite has to be taken apart again. In this pitched-perfect National Theatre production in the Olivier though, Translations taps as close to its power as it can. This is the version for a generation.


Directed by Ian Rickson and with a fixed Olivier stage, we’re confronted with a panorama of shifting clouds and darkness, partly dry ice: Neil Austin’s lighting is starkly beautiful. It plays over Rae Smith’s set foregrounding a hedge school at the centre of a bog and landscape raised evocatively around it, green moss and an old iron cattle trough stage left. All around again Austin’s small lights at crucial night scenes suggest lit-up cottages sprinkled. The school itself is stripped to its foundations, girt round with books and stones, as if the rocks are readers, indeed translators. The dun, grey and drenched clothing – brightened by a green dress or a bright ochre and red one – speak in contrast to the startling scarlet of British soldiers, pristine against the fudge of poverty. Everything works here. Stephen Warbeck’s music evokes, doesn’t intrude, with Ian Dickinson’s sound equally tuned: adding the plash of raindrops into zinc buckets.


From the start we’re in flux. It’s 1833, shortly after Catholic Emancipation and the First Reform Act with limited measures of liberalisation for Ireland from her colonial overloads. And a curious schools initiative. Seamus O’Hare’s Manus is teaching just one pupil before the class arrive, Sarah. Or rather encouraging her to breathe and speak. He’s the elder son, though lame and permanent understudy for his father (indeed younger brother too), mostly benign hedge-school patriarch Hugh (pitch-perfect Ciarån Hinds, though his Latin epigraphs whizz by alarmingly). Hugh’s method is to teach writing, Greek, Latin and maths to adults in Donegal, but not English. O’Hare’s watchful, hurt, simmering performance is at some polar extreme to Hinds’ confident, casually disposing and even more casually drunk Hugh. Hinds manages beautifully the music of Hugh’s lyrical disdain, his sardonic elegy, his piercing grasp of a culture’s tectonic plates more than anyone else; even those most shifting it.


But Hugh’s applied for a post in one of the new National Schools, initially designed to give the first state education – in English – to Catholics and Protestants alike. Manus will be left perhaps with nothing but winding up.


Everything’s leaving him too. Manus is loosely engaged to Maire whose disdain for his refusing to rival his father in an application the latter at his age mightn’t secure, is just one of those situations that metamorphoses unexpectedly. Judith Roddy’s passionate scornful Maire isn’t backward in upbraiding Hugh either. She wants to learn English only. She’s emigrating to America. Manus it seems can offer nothing to keep her should he live off his father’s leavings. Roddy’s readiness and dispatch prepare us for one of those shifts in tempo loyalty and even language. Michelle Fox’s portrayal of a near-dumb Sarah encouraged, later crushed, never being able to tell her love, deeply inflects this play. Fox lingers as a periphery in herself, almost outside speech.


The great early scenes of Translations deal with linguistic virtuosity, the quickness or perceived tardiness of pupils – several of whom are challenged in some way like Sarah – to pick up Hugh’s peacock variations.


There’s a language he won’t brook though and it’s at his door. Younger son Owen – spry, edgily confident Colin Morgan – arrives with two army officers whose mapping and renaming of the territory for tax and colonial administration means that as Hugh knows, the contours of language and identity themselves are lost. Indeed, as is his own son. The way place names are called up, recalled, altered, and repeatedly used by different characters. Hugh apprehends: ‘It can happen that a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of… fact.’


Known by some blunder as Roland, Owen takes a long time to correct the patrician Norman moniker. Morgan well brings out his compromised look, his gradual shifts as events darken. Captain Lancey, the ramrod cartographer, with again a notably Norman name is comically stiff. Rufus Wright nicely underscores the absurd shifts in his mis-communication. First prepared to announce briskly, Wright slows down although he can’t be understood, and then when Owen’s called to translate reverts to frantic jargon that provides a spectacle to both Hugh and Manus, who understand him, and the audience, who see both Irish and English spoken as English, but can never be in doubt as to which is which.


Adetomiwa Edun’s warmly affecting and sympathetic Lieutenant Yolland contrasts a being a Hibernophile as he’s more or less christened, someone who would rather be assimilated than administrate. There’s a bright openness in Edun’s performance to bring out Yolland’s Romantic susceptibilities and accidie. The man who saw Wordsworth but didn’t dare speak. It also brings out Hugh’s magnificent retort. ‘We’re not familiar with your literature, Lieutenant. We feel closer to the warm Mediterranean. We tend to overlook your island.’


The whip-crack scenes between Edun’s Yolland and Morgan’s Owen whilst they go about trying to transliterate unstable place-names are both uneasily comic – Owen’s for changing names more than Yolland – and touching. We realize a true friendship of equals is possible. But events change people like a tale out of Ovid.


No-one’s allowed to remain as they are, except the Infant Prodigy, Dermot Crowley’s Jimmy Jack Cassie, the one who can conjugate Latin and Greek with the Master himself and has a power of a marriage coming to Pallas Athene herself. It’s a layered performance exposing Jimmy’s mix of perfect self-knowledge, nostalgia and occasional delusion, and his un-bitter loneliness. There’ a magnificent scene with the two older men at the end, where Hugh recalls to the prone Jimmy their march in the revolutionary days of 1798 when all seemed possible.


There’s strong support from Laurence Kinland’s Doalty the slow learning farmer who nevertheless supplies quick-acting answers when the most essential are needed. Kinland throws forward a bulked, awkwardly contained man, under-estimated by everyone. Aoife Duffin’s memorable solo performance in A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and other roles is an unimaginable distance from her Bridget here. Her tempo’s rapidly craic-loving, less engaged with a personal narrative, more hungry for learning, wry commentator on all around her.


Crisis is reached when Yolland – that benign outsider awkwardly eloquent – falls for Maire and she him. It’s located here after the interval though is at the end of Act Two. Though dramatically a bit wrenched it makes sense for several reasons (exit of cast members) and links the exuberance of the previous pre-interval scene with itself, so the sudden lurch into Act Three with its shuddering halts can be prepared.


Another reason is it’s the marvellous emotional highlight of the play, the surrender of a coloniser to the values of the land he studies, and his about-to-be lover’s desire to meet him more than half-way. The couple’s mutual linguistic incomprehension bridged by knowing touch and gesture (her knowledge of a sentence involving ‘maypole’ triggers a comic backlash for Maire) is just the climax of many tragi-comic scenes when languages are deliberately or otherwise perverted. Naturally that litany of place-names, the only names they have in common, form a kind of bridge. Both Roddy and Edun here are as warmly affecting as any scene between Ferdinand and Miranda.


The brutal ending and apotheosis – especially principal characters reversing roles – furnishes another of Friel’s surprises. Especially as we’re left with bitter conclusions and unfinished business that resonates like a broken arc of some ancient bridge. Is this it? Through Friel’s drama the stark conclusion takes on its own benediction. A quietly breath-taking production breathing some answers. Those lands still effectively colonized with language and value-systems would ache with recognition.