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Reviewed by:
  • Translations by Brian Friel, and: ‘Master Harold’ . . . and the Boys by Athol Fugard
  • Dan Venning
TRANSLATIONS. By Brian Friel. Directed by Ian Rickson. National Theatre, Olivier Theatre, London. December 3, 2019.
‘MASTER HAROLD’... AND THE BOYS. By Athol Fugard. Directed by Roy Alexander Weise. National Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre, London. December 17, 2019.

In its autumn 2019 season, as the specter of Brexit was looming, London’s National Theatre programmed several productions about the legacy of colonialism. One, Inua Ellams’s Three Sisters, was a new play, a close adaptation of Chekhov transposed to the period from 1967 to 1970, during the Biafran war (the Nigerian Civil War) in Nigeria. Exploring the devastating results of neocolonialism, Ellams’s play makes reference to the works of Christopher Okigbo and Chinua Achebe, examining the suffering endured by colonized peoples even after they had achieved independence. Two other productions were revivals of plays written only two years apart, and both now nearly forty years old: Brian Friel’s Translations (1980) and Athol Fugard’s ‘Master Harold’ . . . and the Boys (1982). Together, these productions simply yet incisively explored the various failures of British imperialism and the damage such ventures perpetrated in both Ireland and Africa. In 2019, they served as reminders that just as the effects of colonialism continue long after the colonists depart, the UK will not be able to ignore Europe and the effects of globalization or remove the influence of its many diverse immigrants from around the globe, even after its departure from the European Union.

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Rufus Wright (Captain Lancey), Fra Fee (Owen), and Jack Bardoe (Lieutenant Yolland) in Translations. (Photo: Catherine Ashmore.)

Ian Rickson’s production of Translations, starring Ciarán Hinds as the Irish hedge-school master Hugh and Fra Fee as his wayward son Owen, was a restaging of a production that had opened a year-and-a-half earlier to a sold-out run (there were many new cast members, including Fee and Jack Bardoe as British Lieutenant George Yolland). Unlike many productions created for the National’s massive Olivier stage, Rickson’s Translations did not make use of the Olivier’s magnificent drum revolve and its potential for rotating stages or raising and lowering actors from depths below the stage. Instead, Rae Smith’s single set covered the stage in sod and dirt, with a simple wooden platform, a few chairs and tables, and a staircase into a house stage right indicating Hugh’s hedge school in the rural landscape of the Irish-speaking community of Baile Beag (Ballybeg), County Donegal, in 1833. Actors would enter and exit over an upstage hill as if having traversed through farmland to reach the school, and the realism of the design was reinforced not only by Smith’s gorgeous period costumes, but also through the scent of peaty moss dispersed throughout the massive auditorium. The relative simplicity of the set on the Olivier’s massive stage helped to romanticize the Irish community that was being transformed through English imperialism. At the same time, Neil Austin’s evocative lighting design, in which bright colors were dispersed across mist upstage to stunning effect, reinforced the mood of scenes and established the world and its characters as mythic and heroic. [End Page 376]

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Jack Bardoe (Lieutenant Yolland) and Fra Fee (Owen) in Translations. (Photo: Catherine Ashmore.)

Friel’s play takes place during an Ordnance Survey, as British soldiers are undertaking the process of mapping Ireland, recording the layout of the country, and renaming places from Irish into English. The alcoholic Hugh teaches Latin and Greek at his hedge school alongside his son Manus, but in an act of resistance refuses to teach English, despite the urging of some of his students that they may need this in order to succeed in a world increasingly dominated by English-speaking global powers. Whether a character is speaking English or Irish, the audience hears the entire play in English (excepting a few phrases from Latin or ancient Greek, recited in the original). This creates fascinating moments where the audience can recognize characters who are trying to speak to one another...