By Laura Kressly
Mud covers the Olivier stage. It’s dark, nearly black, thick and peaty. The ‘emerald’ part of the Emerald Isle is pointedly absent. The muck’s heavy and pervasive, working its way into every crevice of the rural hedge school where students of all ages learn Latin and Greek. They don’t mind the mud. But the British soldiers that come with their imposing colonisation, also working its way into nook and cranny? That’s where the villagers take issue.
Brian Friel’s searing attack on British imperialism and entitlement is still painfully relevant, nearly 40 years after it was and and nearly 200 years after the events depicted in the story. As the British army relentlessly maps Ireland and anglicises Irish spellings to English and condescend to the non-English locals, it’s easy to imagine similar in Brussels as British representatives peacock around Brexit negotiations brandishing metaphorical sledgehammers. Another analogy that springs to mind is Home Office staff telling black British citizens they aren’t entitled to be here. It also resembles any other situation, work or social, where British people sneer at foreigners and brazenly display a sense of superiority.
As Brian Friel’s play gradually reveals the creeping horrors of colonisation that is nothing short of cultural theft, I reflect on my own experience of submission to this country that I’ve made my home. Though willingly given, I have surrendered my most identifying feature as a foreigner – my accent.
My neutral American twang proved to be an obstacle rather than a gift in trying to secure performance work in the UK. After being told by my agent that she wouldn’t put me up for anything other than American roles until I “sorted out my accent”. (Yes, reader. Those were her words.) Wanting so much to perform the Shakespeare I came here to do, I forced my mouth to change its shapes until the awkward became habit.
This snobbery and imposition of values that is so helplessly infuriating gives this production its power. The long, meandering first half is gentle and slow, like countryside living. The invasive species this is first joked about and not taken seriously is an unstoppable threat to lives and livelihoods by the end. If I were British, I’d be embarrassed by my nation’s past after seeing this production.
It takes time to gather momentum, but Friel’s script masterfully uses a common language to cleave a canyon between British and Irish cultures at the time and bring people together despite of this. Though Britain may wield its self-appointed importance like a meat cleaver, the moments where the lights change and the brown mud becomes an unexpected deep, rich green is an encouraging hug that picks you up again so you can continue the fight against the oppressor’s tyranny.
Translations runs through 11 August.
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