Translations, National Theatre, Southbank, London SE1

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Translations is set in Donegal in the 1830s. Ireland is under British control, but most of the population do not speak English. It is at a time before the famine has set in, but people know of the blight and are aware of the damage that a potato crop failure can do to a  community. Ordinance Survey has sent teams of men to map the countryside and to standardise place names. Education had not been allowed for Catholics, so the practice of illegal hedge schools operated throughout Ireland. One of these schools is the precise setting of this play.

This is a play about language, the effect language can have on culture, how we can communicate with it and also about how we can communicate without it. This makes it quite an intimate piece and the Oliver Theatre, The National Theatre’s largest space and stage, does not appear to be a natural home for it. However, Rae Smith, the set designer has done an amazing job and used the space to great advantage. The hedge school is a small, low walled area right at the front of the stage and the rest of the area is peat bog stretching out into the distance, covered by the gently rolling mist that is prevailing climate of the region. Thus, we have the intimacy of the small school and the expanse of the area that is in the process of being mapped.

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Brian Friel was, he died in 2015, a wonderful playwright and Translations is a virtuoso display of his skills. The play itself may be about the power of words but the main love scene is between two people without a common language. It consists mostly of lists of place names, and is still a very moving piece of theatre. The director, Ian Rickson, has taken great care of the action, every entry and exit feels considered and the lines are all delivered deliberately, making you feel that each word has been carefully chosen.

The acting is of the highest calibre, Ciaran Hinds is as good as you would expect – and those expectations are high indeed. Colin Morgan is also very good, showing that he is aware that he is taking both sides, while denying it to all. Dermot Crowley, as Jimmy Jack Cassie, is a revelation, in a part as a humorous fantasist, who has to be credible to be funny. I also loved Michelle Fox, who managed to get us to feel a wide range of emotions even though her part has very few lines.

The thing that makes this production stand out for me, though, is the extraordinary way that Ian Rickson handles the final scene. The mechanism he employs, comes out of the blue and is gone in a flash, it adds a current reference to the play and suits it well. All in all, this is a beautiful piece of writing, beautifully presented and performed and I will consider myself to be very lucky if I see anything as good this year.

 

Macbeth, National Theatre, Southbank, London

Macbeth

This is more Mad Mac than Macbeth. This play is so different to what we usually see put on as Macbeth, that it would not have been too much to change the title as well. At least then we would have had a little more idea of what to expect. I was not amazed at the number of people who did not return for the second act, because for many people, this will not have been the show that they came to see. It is certainly not Macbeth as we know it, the set, costumes and music fight to overwhelm one of Shakespeare’s most dramatic plays, but thanks to strong lead performances Macbeth just about wins through.

I admire Rufus Norris’ audacity here, he makes Macbeth into a gory, post apocalyptic, horror show – with zombies. The party is a grimy, drugged-up car park rave, ripped plastic bin bags are the height of home decoration and the future of clothes care clearly doesn’t involve any kind of washing. The world he presents is ugly, violent and harsh.  It begins with a particularly brutal beheading that warns you that this will be a difficult watch at times, and there are other moments in the production that transcend even the gore, slash/ horror genre that was in vogue in 1980s. It has a punk ethic that sets out to shock, and the visceral disgust of the moment when Lady MacDuff is presented with the bodies of her mutilated children in clear plastic bags is something that will not be soon forgotten.

Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear are both good, despite all the eccentric distractions going on around them. The actors here have a hard job, it’s almost as though Rufus Norris has decided that the lines of the play are secondary to the action on stage, so often he has them doing strange things while delivering famous lines. Why is Porter giving this speech clinging on to a pole at the back of the stage, why is Macbeth removing his socks after killing Duncan? Even when Rory Kinnear is alone on stage, he has to contend with avoiding the furniture on a spinning set.  This vision has some wins and some losses, the point in the second act where all the dead characters are lurching around the stage in crazed zombie mode is a big contrast from the performances of Kevin Harvey and Steven Boxer in the first act as Banquo and Duncan. As Macduff, Patrick O’Kane’s reaction to the news of the murder of his family stood out, all the more, for being so restrained in the sea of lunacy surrounding him.

This is not a Macbeth that I would ever have envisioned, and it is not one of my favourite interpretations. I don’t believe that this production was made to be liked, it was made to alarm, astound and to be talked about – and if that is the case, it surely achieves what it set out to do. What is certainly true, is that this Macbeth is one that I will remember and, for that,  I am pleased not to have missed it.