Ian Rickson’s atmospheric staging of Brian Friel’s intricate and lyrical 1980 play about language, communication and colonialism returns to the National Theatre after a lauded run last year.
It’s a traditional and earth-bound staging in many ways, but it’s also captivating, suffused with the wonder of words.
Ciarán Hinds reprises his role as Hugh, master of the Baile Beag hedge school, shambling about like an old bear, Greek and Latin as intoxicating to him as poteen. It’s a mighty performance, majestic yet melancholy, a soused Lear.
Judith Roddy and Seamus O’Hara also return, as the vibrant Maire, unshakeable in her determination to learn English, and Hugh’s son, the proud, gentle Manus. Both are excellent, subtle and controlled.
It’s a real ensemble piece, though, and all the performances are strong.
Fra Fee replaces Colin Morgan in the role of Manus’ brother Owen, the gregarious go-between who assists the English in bringing uniformity to the Irish place names by anglicising them, his initial pragmatic enthusiasm for the task slowly ebbing away as he realises its implications.
Jack Bardoe makes an impressive stage debut as Yolland, the endearingly puppyish English lieutenant who falls in love with the country and indulges in a doomed flirtation of mutual incomprehension with Maire.
Though Rae Smith’s rough set, with its earthen floor and distant glinting villages, evokes the harshness of the landscape, nodding the famine to come, Rickson’s production occasionally indulges in the romanticisation the play critiques. But it achieves a rare intimacy in the cavernous Olivier space and Hinds’ final speech is spellbinding – as he speaks, everything else fades away.