OLD IRELAND: PLAYFUL, POWERFUL, INTENSE AND TRAGIC
A hot summer at harvest’s end, 1836. Outside a stone barn in County Donegal old Jimmy-Jack is chortling naughtily over the Iliad. “Isn’t she the tight one! The flashing-eyed Athene…if you had a woman like that about the house it’s not stripping a turf bog you’d be about!”. Lame-legged Manus, waiting for his Dad Hugh to sober up and take over the Ballybeg hedge-school, helps with the hard words, clutching the precious Aeschylus and Virgil volumes he bought with the money from a hand-raised lamb. The cheerful dunce Doalty struggles with times tables, and young women weary and blistered from the fields vie with one another to construe and dig out word-roots.
They’re all, we understand, talking and learning in the Irish language, any change to English indicated with skilful brilliance by Brian Friel’s phraseology. For times are changing, and under British rule the new National Schools must teach in English. And the redcoats – needing interpreters – are out mapping the land and giving familiar landmarks new names. Friel’s modern classic is based on a reality which now seems startling: village teachers did teach the Classics, and the colonial masters did – as they always do – fear and mistrust local language.
The story unfolds – at first playful and humorous, later darkening – as a young soldier (James Northcote) falls for the pretty Maire with disastrous results. It leads us on an emotional and phlosophical journey into an unfamiliar world, yet one touching great epic themes: the politics of language and of power, misapprehension and mistranslation, the need for fantasy and legend and the danger of confining something ancient and organic in a tight new linguistic and cultural straitjacket (ask any aboriginal Australian).
James Grieve’s production has sly delights: the barn dance where the soldier can’t follow the ancient skipping pattern of the villagers, the distant fiddles and chirping birds, the great battered barn itself (Lucy Osborne’s design). His cast is full of treasures too: Niall Buggy as the old teacher and John Conroy as JImmy-Jack, scruffy under his straw hat, chuckling over Mediterranean texts which feel closer than the strictnesses of the cold Victorian island next door. Beth Cooke is a touchingly tough rustic Maire, longing for a wider world, Ciaran O”Brien a gallant hopeful Manus. And as his more sophisticated brother Owen, Cian Barry shows the conflicts of a man who collaborates with the soldiers and the new era until their power is seen as not just maps and words, but cold threats to shoot livestock and flatten homes if nobody betrays the rebels on the mountain.
In a haunting late moment Bridget, who fears the strange sweet smell of potato blight, confuses it with another ominous smell, foretelling a century of conflict: the burning canvas tents of the military. Friel’s tremendous play, this well served, haunts you long after you get home.
box office 0114 249 6000 to 8 March.
TOURING to 3 May: tour details http://www.ett.org.uk