Kings Theatre, Edinburgh
It's perhaps telling that Scotland's capital is hosting the only mainland UK dates for Adrian Dunbar's vivid touring revival of Brian Friel's 1980 masterpiece, staged as part of Derry/Londonderry's UK City of Culture programme. Here, after all, is a play that speaks eloquently and passionately about the very human consequences of cultural colonialism by a ruling elite. In this week of grand gestures, it couldn't be more pertinent.
Friel sets out his store in nineteenth century Donegal, where the rural community are educated at a hedge school, a form of unlegislated shared learning for all. Into this steps the British Army, who have been tasked with translating the local place names from Irish Gaelic to the King's English. What is dressed up as aspirational opportunity soon turns to siege mentality, as the locals are first patronised, then, following the disappearance of a lovesick young lieutenant, brutalised by occupying forces. Yet this is no polemic. At the play's heart is a poignant love triangle between idealistic teacher Manus, the lieutenant and Maire, who has her sights set on America.
Set on designer Stuart Marshall's bright, blue-skied set, Dunbar's largely young cast grab one of the most important plays to come out of Northern Ireland in the twentieth century and breathe their collective heart and soul into it. The scene between Jade Yourell's Maire and Paul Woodson's Lieutenant Yolland as they try to find a common language beyond their obvious attraction is by turns hilarious and beautifully sad. So-called progress may appear to win out, but in the end it's the word that survives in an essential work that speaks volumes about a small nation starting to find its voice.
The Herald, April 17th 2013