No one really knows what “glaukopis Athena” means in Homer’s Iliad, a text quoted frequently in Brian Friel’s masterpiece. Friel translates it as “flashing-eyed” but it could mean “grey-eyed” or “owl-eyed”. The point is that languages die, partly at least, and on its surface that’s what Translations is about: trying to keep language alive.
In a small Donegal town in the 19th century, English soldiers march in to map the area and anglicise place names, disrupting a community whose lives revolve around farming and learning bits of Latin and Greek at the local hedge school.
But, in Ian Rickson’s intricately detailed production, it’s also about how language both creates communities and acts as a barrier or border too, hardly frictionless, and isolating those who don’t speak it.
Just as the language in the play slides from ancient to modern, so Rae Smith’s set contains that span of time, from the 19th century school building cut into bog, to the concrete stairs that blend into the concrete walls of the Olivier stalls. Apart from a split second at the very end, this is the only explicit suggestion of the contemporary relevance of Friel’s play at the moment, a pertinence that hardly needs pointing out.
It comes alive when Ciaran Hinds steps on stage as the shambling, raging, charismatic schoolmaster Hugh, constantly barking at his students to tell him the derivations of Latin and Greek words. When he moves his head his shoulders and torso move with it, as if his back has been stiffened from drink and rain. Hinds has a way of bellowing quietly that makes him a force on stage.
Colin Morgan’s Owen, the prodigal son now collaborating with the English, is a stark contrast to Hinds, a sharp, healthy, clean presence among these peat-smeared people. The way his arrogance and chipper smile diminish as the play progresses is remarkable.
Even Morgan is grubby in comparison to the English sappers who arrive in poppingly bright red military uniforms. Adetomiwa Edun is particularly good as George, the English soldier who falls in love with local girl Maire.
Under Rickson’s direction, there’s a minute pause between each word, which not only allows Friel’s musical script to be heard in the vast Olivier space, but seems also to be a deliberate directorial choice about the cherishing of language. These lines are rolled around the mouths of the actors with care, so that the details of the language match the detail of the production – from the mud around the ankles of the soldiers’ otherwise pristine uniforms to the raindrops that fall precisely into buckets from the school’s leaky roof.
Other than that, there’s no flash, no gimmickry. But, like the fog that hangs in unmoving sheets over the stage, imperceptibly thickening throughout, Rickson’s production grows dense with meaning and melancholy. Translations is one of the great Irish plays, and this is a big, traditional production of it. Rickson shows there’s a place for that. In a (Latin-derived) word: magnificent.