Set in Ireland in 1833, Ian Rickson’s new production of one of Brian Friel’s classic plays is both a rich and subtle feast. Friel himself famously said that Translations is ‘a play about language and only language.’ There’s no doubt that the power and the instability of language is an explicit source of fascination to most of the characters and the lifeblood of the play as a whole. Set in a small village in Donegal, when two British officers arrive to map and re-name every inch of the land in English, the relationship between language and culture is at the heart of the drama.

‘Translations’ opens inside a rural ‘Hedge school’ illegal education for poorer people prevalent in 18th and 19th century. Rae Smiths design beautifully offers a broad sweep of landscape that reaches into the vast Olivier whilst a warm central playing space inside the ‘school room’ focuses the action. Whilst the National Schools which were gaining popularity at the time taught lessons in English, these Hedge schools often taught Latin and Greek, and Friel relishes the opportunity for characters to quote from the Iliad, determine the roots of words and inhabit the romances of the Greek Gods. ‘I am a barbarian in this place because I am not understood by anyone.’

Developing the play Friel had to come up with a theatrical conceit for the audience to accept that the people of Urris/Ballybeg are speaking Irish even when they’re speaking English. Easy to achieve until the English soldiers come into the cottage to speak to the Irish and of course we need to believe that the English and Irish don’t understand a word each other is saying. When Owen (Colin Morgan), the prodigal son returned takes on the position of translator, there is a palpable excitement from the audience. How will this work? What does ensue is quite brilliant delightfully simple and very funny.

There is nothing dry about the plays fascination with language as it feeds the characters themselves. Sarah played by Michelle Fox is virtually mute and resonates with frustrated inner life. Then there’s the love story between the English soldier and the Irish village girl who may not understand each others language but attune to each other all the same. Yet whilst much of the drama feels intimate and domestic or intellectual and contemplative, Rickson catches us unawares with a dramatic final image that seems to thrust the play into a whole new light.