It can’t be easy creating a programme that justifies the term National given to the theatres on London’s South Bank, when you know that your most frequent visitors of critics and ‘season ticket holders’ will be harsh and loud and hold you personally to account. One month a mob screams for your blood after risks that didn’t quite pay off (step forward Salome). Another, you’re beset by lusting advances following luscious revivals (please welcome Follies). So if brief respite from this high emotion can be achieved by an occasional selection from critic-pleasing file ‘Intellectually Stimulating (And Achingly Aware)’, then one can understand the fundamental reason for another revival (last seen at the NT only 13 years ago) of Translations, as it offers an enthralling and exciting night for a few but at the cost of being an enjoyable one for the many.
An abundance of apt alliteration to aide your meander through a maze of meticulous metaphors.
On paper, it seems pretty straightforward.. if a little dull. The setting is rural Ireland in 1833 – an Ireland that almost smells of fable, which may be on hard times (we see this in our knowledge of the upcoming devastation of the potato famine of which these characters know nothing) but is also replete with rolling hills and romanticised tradition. And ostensibly, the events centre around the old ways about to be ripped apart by the misguided efficiency of the clinical and cold English. But of course, it’s really much more than that – with so much hidden in the words used and the allegory being drawn it will either keep your puzzle solving mind agile and alert, or it will switch off as your attention wanders to something much more….
If that’s more metaphor than you can handle in an opening, then this isn’t going to give you the best return on the cost of your ticket. The playwright Brian Friel – to some, the Irish Chekhov or Ibsen – made it clear himself that Translations should be seen for its style rather than its subject and in case that got lost in… time, this line is repeated in slightly differing ways by different characters on a cycle that feels like it marks the passing of every ten minutes. The intellectual conceit / theatrical gimmick – depending on your viewpoint – is that the English soldiers who arrive in the small Irish village to give official new names to local landmarks for purposes of mapping (and taxing) the area, don’t understand a word of the raggle taggle salt of the earth locals’ Irish dialect. Meanwhile, the Irish themselves are in turn deaf to the words barked in the orders given by the snooty English Army. And yet – here is the rub – actually they are ALL speaking in English so we can plainly understand their misunderstandings, (Note that if you see the play elsewhere in the version that Friel himself really wanted to be the main text, the language they all speak is Irish. But if you see the lesser played Welsh version… you get the picture). It’s very very funny. Sometimes it’s funny. Overall it’s slightly amusing but possibly this was just as much led by necessity as it was by inspiration.
The comparisons of Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow are endless and range from the warmth of the community spirit in the Hedge School the Irish attend to learn Latin in place of English, to the promise of America versus the idea of yet more heavy lambing. Genius points aren’t awarded for guessing the representations made by the triptych central to the story – elderly alcoholic teacher Hugh (given a bearded Godlike presence by Ciaran Hinds), Patriarch to all and Father to eldest stay/trapped-at-home son Manus (oozing resentment with the intonation of every stretched necked syllable by Seamus O’Hare), and returning prodigal Owen (who lollops and fidgets about as though Merlin star Colin Morgan really really wants to be taller). To ensure no metaphor has chance of passing you by, each of the men is given a similar, yet slightly different, abnormal physical trait that impacts their movement (it’s the ‘common thread that binds them together… it’s the vulnerability behind their strength… it’s their chink in the chinkless something that shouldn’t have chinks’ (not sure all of those are the best of metaphors but hopefully the rhythm makes up for the meaning). And for absolute avoidance of doubt, time is well spent on plenty of different perspectives demonstrated through literal different sightlines, along with everyone’s favourite, the “triple stare into the middle distance all at the same time” look.
There is plenty of talent at play here. And if it’s a text being studied then I am sure this will be a great way to see it being brought to life. But the idea of play that is about construct not content is not just not new but already feels a bit old fashioned and overdone. Whether it’s with more surreality (like Caryl Churchill); or by slowly eroding linguistic norms (Alistair MacDowall perhaps), or in a more subtle manner that makes a play enjoyable on whichever level you see it (look no further than Nina Raine’s Consent), the point is that it’s done much more now than it probably was when Friel used it here. And so of course, it’s also now done much much better.
With its ‘Modern Classic’ label being shrieked out as introduction you may be expecting a sumptuous theatrical feast to be set before you. What you get is more like the remains of the feast’s carcass, with its bones visibly held together by chunks of rich metaphor and morsels of linguistic dexterity. For some there is enjoyment to be had by picking at each bit, examining and then re-serving, reheated in opinion. For those who prefer some meat to be provided with the bones, it can feel like staring at an empty plate – one that leaves you unsatisfied, untouched, unmoved and just really really uninterested.
And that is the last of what I am aware is an abundance of apt alliteration to aide your meander through a maze of meticulous metaphors. For much like the production itself, it gets bloody dull bloody quickly doesn’t it?