(Michael Billington’s article appeared in The Guardian, 5/31.)

Brian Friel’s 1980 play has long been regarded as a modern classic. In Ian Rickson’s flawless production, it seems to expand to fill the vast space of the Olivier. Friel’s multilayered study of what Colm Tóibín calls “the clash between language and culture” is set against the epic breadth of the mist-wreathed Donegal hills, beautifully lit by Neil Austin and punctuated, in Ian Dickinson’s sound design, by the sound of steadfast Irish rain dripping into a bucket.

What strikes one is Friel’s ability to find complex meanings in a simple story and to capture Ireland, in 1833, at a moment of historical transition. A rural hedge-school, where classes are conducted in Irish, is to be replaced by a national education system in which English is the official language. At the same time, British soldiers are engaged in an ordnance survey involving the anglicisation of Irish place names. Friel explores these radical changes through their impact on individuals: in particular, Hugh, the local teacher steeped in Latin and Greek; his bilingual son, Owen, who acts as interpreter for the occupying forces; and an English lieutenant, Yolland, who readily succumbs to the romance of Ireland.

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Photo: The National Theatre

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