Olivier, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (020-7452 3000). Until 11 August Running time: 2hrs 30mins (including interval) Playwright: Brian Friel Director: Ian Rickson
Brian Friel’s “masterly” 1980 play, in which British army engineers arrive to map 1830s Donegal and to anglicise Irish place names, is a stonecold modern classic, said Michael Billington in The Guardian. Here, in a flawless production, it “seems to expand to fill the vast space of the Olivier”: it’s one of the best things staged at the National in recent years. The setting is an Irish-language rural school, or hedge school, run by “learned old soak” Hugh, which is under threat from the introduction of compulsory English-language education, said Paul Taylor in The Independent. Ciarán Hinds plays Hugh with a “wonderful dilapidated grandeur”; Dermot Crowley is “perfection” as the eccentric, Greek-reading old Jack; and Colin Morgan is superb as Hugh’s adult son, Owen, who works as an interpreter for the British soldiers.
Rae Smith’s set design is a “wild achievement”, said Kate Kellaway in The Observer. There’s a huge sky upon which “smudged pink clouds spread like rumours and actors come up over the rising ground silhouetted in fire”. The hedge school is edged with muddy turf and with “an armchair so old it looks as if it’s about to be subsumed back into nature”. The effect is to lend the play a thrilling, mythic quality. Some of this “magnificent” play’s delicacies do seem to lose a little of their subtlety in the vast space of the Olivier, said Ian Shuttleworth in the FT. But it’s still a rich and rewarding experience.
A highlight of this “riveting” production, said Dominic Maxwell in The Times, is the “tender yet hilarious love scene” between Máire, a young woman who knows only a handful of English words, and George, the lieutenant whose Irish extends only to place names. Judith Roddy and Adetomiwa Edun are outstanding as they desperately try to communicate their feelings. Ian Rickson directs with “immense sensitivity”, said Christopher Hart in The Sunday Times. But the “real star” is Friel’s masterpiece, full of “glorious dialogue and characterisation” and an “inexhaustible thematic richness”.