Brian Friel
National Theatre
Olivier Theatre, National Theatre

Seamus O'Hara as Manus, Ciarán Hinds as Hugh and Fra Fee as Owen Credit: Catherine Ashmore

Brian Friel’s classic 1980 play was beautifully revived at the National last year by Ian Rickson and his production now returns to the Olivier with a few cast changes. Set in 1833 in the fictional village of Baile Beag in Donegal where heavy-drinking Hugh and his son Manus run a “hedge school” for the locals. Gaelic speakers all of them, they know more Latin and Greek than they do English and Hugh is particularly keen on word origins in classical languages.

The British government has initiated an Ordinance Survey of Ireland and the military cartographers are in Donegal accompanied by Hugh’s other son, Owen, who has returned after a six-year absence. He acts as translator for the Army in their dealings with the Irish and assists the young orthographer Lieutenant Yolland in researching correct place names and Anglicising them.

Dramatist Friel said this play was "about language and only about language" but it is much more: it captures a turning point in Irish life. A new National School is to be set up where everything will be done in English and, though Donegal as yet has healthy potatoes, potato blight and famine are not far away and the dark clouds that hang over the play’s end are a portent of the future as are Manus’s girlfriend Maire’s plans to emigrate to America.

But language is indeed at the heart of the play along with the problem of communication without a common tongue. It opens with Seamus O’Hara’s Manus, who limps from an infant injury caused when his drunken father fell on him, encouraging speech-handicapped local girl Sarah (Liadán Dunlea) to speak her name.

The audience hear dialogue in English but the Irish characters would be speaking Gaelic and writing and production skilfully make it very easy to know who is speaking which. It can be very funny when two people are saying the same things to each other without realising it—and touching too, as when Lieutenant Yolland, now played by Jack Bardoe, and Judith Roddy’s Maire try to say what they feel about each other. Words that each finds incomprehensible but the saying full of feeling.

Fra Fee, who now plays Owen, makes him dynamic with the gift of the gab in both languages. He’s a bit of the diplomat too in the way he adapts as he translates. Judith Roddy, returning as Maire, captures her frustration with O’Hara’s gentle Manus who won’t commit to emigration, especially now he has been asked to set up a hedge school in another village where he’ll have a house and a wage, not the poor pickings his father gives him. Ciarán Hinds as that blustering drunk is a formidable figure who treats his lame son like a servant.

It’s a strong cast throughout with Dermot Crowley especially delightful as Hugh’s old chum Jimmy Jack babbling on about Homer and Virgil, convinced in his cups that he’s going to marry the goddess Athena: and brazenly announcing he does know some English, just one word: “bosoms”.

Though we meet only a handful of villages, with Rufus Wright’s Captain Lancey representing ruthless British colonial authority (in contrast to Yolland who is as romantically entranced by Irish life as he is by Maire), this is a nation in microcosm.

Designer Rae Smith removes the walls from the hedge school at Hugh’s ramshackle home and surrounds them with rolled-up cut peat and fills the rest of the Olivier stage with a rolling landscape that at night is specked with the lights of distant cottages. The clouded red skies of Neil Austin’s dramatic lighting may start as a sunset but by the end of the play could easily turn into burning villages. It may have been written 40 years ago and be set in 1833 but this is a play that still feels timely.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton