Translations @ National Theatre: The Greatest Possession?

Translations was a play I knew nothing about. I knew the name, I knew who Brian Friel was, and my flatmate – who had suffered through being taught the play in IB Lit – sketched in the very basic premise, and nothing else. But I always think it’s great to know almost nothing about the thing you’re about to watch. I think it means you come out with a more coherent perspective, even when the piece is overwhelming, and I think I prefer writing about things I hadn’t known anything about. If it escapes understanding as a whole, you do tend to have a clear perspective on it, where knowledge of the piece can lead to that being muddied.

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As it turns out, Translations is about the impact of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland in the 1930s. It’s about the translating of Irish place names into English, in order to make them consistent – read: in order to make it easier for the British army to effectively occupy the territory. In the process of doing so, the British employ a civilian, Owen, to aid with translation between the soldiers and the civilians as neither can speak the others’ language. It’s the first time Owen has returned to his hometown of Baile Beag in 6 years, where his father and brother run a ‘hedge’ school, soon to be replaced by a ‘national’ school where the teaching will be done in English.

It asks what language actually means in the grand scheme of thing, and what is the actual value of communication. When you are stripped of language, what do you resort to? Do you physically try and communicate, like Máire and Yolland, do you withdraw into silence, like Sarah, or do you run headlong at the new invention, like Owen – and what is the fallout of each. The absolutism of not being able to communicate gives way to the ambiguities of what has to happen instead. English/Irish is both a fundamentally true dichotomy, and a fundamentally false one.

And in a theatre, where in the vast majority of cases, words are what we work with. There is a playtext, there is dialogue. We don’t see the stage directions, we can only hear the words that are said. Towards the end of the play, Hugh says “it is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language.” Language carries the past… in images? Dialogue on stage creates stage pictures, which tell a story. That’s a crude simplification. I’m not sure what it has to do with anything. But there’s something in there, the idea of language carrying history, and language carrying story, as if they’re interchangeable. I’m at the end now of a three-year history degree and I think that’s quite probably true. History is the study of documents, of language, effectively.

Everything has its own language. Everything has its own rhythm. There’s a crispness to the English and a smoothness to the Irish – even the rain has its own rhythm, as it strikes the tin buckets in the hedge school, placed there to catch the leaks. There is no such thing as a hermetically sealed environment. There is never going to be no movement. Things pass via diffusion anyway, ideas, words, raindrops. That’s obviously not the same as change being forced onto a landscape, onto a language, onto a culture.

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Translations is being staged in the Oliver auditorium of the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain (Not Great Britain and Northern Ireland, interestingly. Or not.) The Royal isn’t used often but it’s there. For some reason. It’s not like the Royal Opera House, which wears its royal approval on its sleeves. The National Theatre still has the idea that it exists out of the people, royal approval aside. If it’s of the people, then you can tell all sorts of stories. But when the word ‘Royal’ inches back into frame, certain stories suddenly seemed awkward. It’s not like they don’t belong, but it’s a weird context for them to exist in.

I kept thinking of that thing Higgins says in My Fair Lady, “Think what you’re dealing with. The majesty and grandeur of the English language, it’s the greatest possession we have. The noblest thoughts that ever flowed through the hearts of men are contained in its extraordinary, imaginative, and musical mixtures of sounds.” The exaltation of the English language. Shakespeare is written in English. Milton, Dickens, du Maurier, Smiths Ali and Zadie, all write in English. I fucking love English. I love reading the stories contained by the language. That is probably because I know no other language. I speak about 5 words of Spanish and, well, Scouse. My experience of the language is not as something that has been forced on me or my ancestors (I think. I have an uncle in the process of drawing a family tree so who knows, but it’s unlikely to say the least.)

The words in Translations are English. Even when Irish is spoken, it is English that is heard by the audience. But what are they hearing? On my way out, after watching two and a half hours of a play largely concerned with cultural imperialism, I overheard an old man saying to his (presumably) wife, “it wasn’t such a crime giving those Irish places English names, was it now.” I get that theatre is open to interpretation but… really? If anyone in that audience still thinks that way, hasn’t something gone hideously wrong? Not necessarily to do with the play, or the production, but what the fuck?

When I was first taught Irish history (and fell in love with it) at GCSE, I don’t think anyone in my class understood what had happened there in the years immediately before we were born. Those older than us do know that there was a war, and that people died. But they don’t see it in colonial terms. Many don’t see those initial things Britain did in centuries past as crimes, or maybe even relevant at all.

I do, for what it’s worth, believe that the National Theatre is trying to engage with the imperial/colonial past of the country that it represents, but there remains a gulf between what the production is trying to say – more of which later – and what a section of the audience is clearly hearing, because of poor education. How can you reconcile that? How can you solve it at that stage? If someone is not convinced by two and a half hours of cultural imperialism, what will you be convinced by?

In some ways, it genuinely feels like the most anti-Brexit thing the NT has done, and in others, it feels like its perpetuating exactly the kind of post-colonial thinking that birthed Euro-scepticism. There’s no clear route and I certainly have no answers, but it feels like an attempt at something in the wrong way.

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The production, directed by Ian Rickson, is very National Theatre. It’s beautifully made, beautifully spoken, and goes about halfway towards saying something interesting and challenging about the play. It takes place in a circle of mud on the Olivier’s stage. I hope someone is getting a discount on all that mud. Maybe Translations has nicked Common’s set and Macbeth nicked its star ratings. I give it three weeks before an actor falls off the stage because of the rake.

It’s beautifully lit, not that I know a lot about lighting, but the way the sky is suggested, and the light shifts is quite beautiful. There’s also SPOTLIGHTS. Spotlights. In 2018. I didn’t realise people were still using them. And there’s some great performances in there; Colin Morgan is served far better by this material than he was in Gloria, Ciarán Hinds is excellent, again, and Judith Roddy is great too, though hopefully she’ll soon be appearing in a play at the NT where she isn’t sent slightly-mad by an absent lover.

The scene at the start of the second half might be worth the ticket price alone though. The British soldier tasked with changing the names, Lieutenant Yolland (Adetomiwa Edun) and Irish Máire (Roddy) have fallen a little way in love, but they share no language beyond a few words. So they do anything else they can to communicate exactly what they mean, with their hands, with their bodies, and eventually they just trust that the other feels exactly the same. It’s beautifully done. For a moment, all the politics and context is forgotten and it becomes pure romance. And all too quickly it’s over. And then the rest of the play happens.

The production is good, and I thoroughly enjoyed my first exposure to this text.

But.

The last ten seconds of this play point in a direction that suggests a production infinitely more interesting. Riskier, certainly, but bold. As the light fade on 1830s County Donegal, they rise on the walkway at the back of the Olivier’s stage. On the walkway stand three paratroopers in modern dress, carrying machine guns. Just as they become visible, the lights black out. It’s an acknowledgment that the events of the play are only part of a sequence, not the whole collision of cultures encompassed neatly into three acts. But it also feels like a bit of a cop out. Could it not have gone further? Could that point have been the point? Would that boldly political take on the play have finally addressed that complicated context that the play exists in on that stage?

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I really really really liked Translations. I want to see more Brian Friel. I want the (Royal) National Theatre to be braver. I want the British people to stop being so arrogant and look at our history and what it’s done – and is doing – to people.

I’m not asking for that much.

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

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