Love of the Irish

Rating: 5


by Georgina Brown 

The unmistakable smell of peat-smoke fills the vast Olivier auditorium. Lights from behind illuminate wafting clouds. or is it soft Irish mist? For a moment 19th-century Donegal looks dreamily romantic in Ian Rickson's exquisitely lit, beautifully performed revival of Brian Friel's masterpiece. Then you notice that the threadbare hedge-school classroom where the dirt-poor Gaelic-speaking farmhands and milkmaids are learning Latin and Greek from Hugh (Ciarán Hinds), a drunk but scholarly schoolmaster, is bolstered by rolls of peat and resembles a first World War trench and the rough scrub beyond looks like a no-man’s land. When studies are interrupted by an English redcoat who emerges from the horizon flanked by soldiers (once again strikingly lit from behind), it is all too evident that this is a war zone of sorts. The British soldiers have come to Ireland to Anglicise the names of the villages and make them more palatable for the tongues of colonists. So the mysterious Druim Dubh becomes the banal Black ridge. As Hugh says: ‘English couldn’t really express us’.

But this play goes further than revealing how much gets lost in translation. It is about the murder of hopes and dreams and builds, magnificently, into an epic portrait of a culture and a history under threat of obliteration by imperialism. Without Gaelic, places vanish, and these people lose access to their past. Friel presents a much more balanced picture, however. For without English, these Irish folk have no future beyond their own borders. Gutsy Maire is desperate to learn it in order to move to America so that she can earn some money to send home. The linguistic richness of the play dazzles, partly because the tramp-like Jimmy Jack seems to be on as familiar terms with his next-door neighbours as he is with Zeus’s girls, Artemis, Athene and Helen of Troy from classical mythology, which he reads in the original Greek. Yet, one of the most eloquent scenes of all, surely one of the most ecstatic love scenes ever written, is a celebration of the non-verbal language of love. Maire (a radiant Judith Roddy) and the sensitive English lieutenant Yolland (a rapturous Adetomiwa Edun) who is enchanted by everything Irish, do not share a common language.

But as they look at one another, speaking nonsense neither understands, the exchange becomes their own private expression of passion. Alas, their love affair is doomed both because it triggers the jealous rage of a lame young schoolteacher who hoped to settle down with Maire and because the Irish are fighting back as dirtily as they dare. And so trouble breeds the troubles for centuries to come. A remarkable production of a remarkable play.

Until 11 August at Olivier Theatre, London SE1: 020-7452 3000,