Brian Friel’s best known play transports us to 1830s Ireland where the British army, assisted by local civilians, are creating an Ordnance Survey map, clumsily “anglicising” the place names as they go. Education is a major theme. Local people attend Hedge Schools, effectively evening classes run by a teacher in his own home – one of which provides the play’s setting, but change is afoot. Few locals speak English but because of the teacher, his son and an eccentric local bard they are well versed in Latin and Greek.

Naturalistic and convincing, Fra Fee is outstanding as Owen, the teacher’s son returning home after six years and now working on the OS project. He translates – or rather summarises and reinterprets – between the army officers and the locals. Since the play is actually in English the cast have to make it clear when to assume they’re speaking Irish, which works perfectly well and makes for some good comic moments. There’s a fine performance too from Liadán Dunlea, making her professional debut, as mute Sarah who is beginning, with help, to overcome her disability. She uses facial expression and gesture very adeptly.

Dermot Crowley as Jimmy, the drunken, scruffy but cerebral bard, and Ciarán Hinds as Hugh, the elderly teacher, work beautifully together especially in the final scene after which we are left reflecting on colonial arrogance along with the way language unites and divides people.

I have rarely seen a play as beautifully lit as this one. Neil Austin’s lighting designs are stunning. The back drop is flushed pink and when characters emerge out of the darkness at the back of the stage, they are bathed in light from which they gradually emerge as they advance downstage. It is an extraordinarily realistic representation of a dark rural landscape and way it is lights at night when people move about in it.

Director Ian Rickson and his strong cast make sure we think carefully about every word in the play – which has long been a favourite in secondary school exam courses. It’s a wordy piece about words – and language and culture and the intricate relation between them. 

Review by Susan Elkin

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