Comfort is not what we expect from theatre. If it were, we wouldn’t be paying for tickets just to sit in a cramped seat in a crowded room for 1-3 hours, when we could be relaxing in our own, pillow-padded rooms with Netflix and the ability to go to the loo whenever we wanted. If it were, Shakespeare’s Globe would be the worst theatre in existence, and King Learthe most disagreeable play. But no—we go to the theatre, at the expenses of our bladders, bottoms, and sometimes pockets, to be motivated, stimulated, and affected. To be induced to think and feel. Such impact is one of the most charming aspects of theatre.
But the impact itself is not always charming; sometimes it disturbs us and makes us uncomfortable. And sometimes it prompts us to look into the face of things, important things, that we try to forget and leave behind, or even are pained by. Like a wake-up call, an alarm we didn’t know we needed until it starts ringing.
When I visited London in the summer of 2018, I did think of getting a ticket to the National’s production ofTranslations, but for some reason I can’t remember decided not to. Then I forgot about it. Same year, in December: I was back in England for my interview at Oxford. Just a few days before my memorable—but I will not digress—interview week, I saw The Height of the Storm, written by Florian Zeller and starring Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins, at the Wyndham’s Theatre. I had already spoilt myself by reading the play beforehand, so knew what to expect. But the parts of me that it touched were completely unexpected—and where they touched me, they left a strong, burning mark.
The Height of the Stormdeals with many things, but its most captivating aspect is its wretchedly teasing ambiguity on either Andre or Madeleine’s widowhood. Until its very last moment, the play provides no definite answer to the question: who is the widow/widower, Andre or Madeline? Or are they both alive, despite the play’s persistent hinting at a loss in the family? In either case, the stage of The Height of the Stormis constantly haunted by the past and the dead, at the same time blurring the line between past/present and dead/alive. The past lives with and within us, coexists with us, affects us. Andre says, “You think people are dead, but that’s not always the case.”
After the show, I waited outside for Jonathan Pryce. While I was getting his autograph (he was so nice about it, hats off), I told him how much his performance had reminded me of my grandfather. A once authoritative man now debilitated by Alzheimer’s and haunted by the absence of his wife and his daughter (my mother). It is my job every holiday to visit him and tell him how his daughter is doing. I don’t know if he really believes me, yet nonetheless we keep maintaining an ecosystem of absent people and past memories that we both inhabit.
Of course, this is something I used to refuse to admit, or even bring to mind; writing about it, as I am doing now, would have been unthinkable. It pained me and threatened to bring back all the grief I’d managed to suppress; at best it seemed melodramatic and pathetic.The Height of the Stormdramatized it, physicalized it, vocalized it, and presented it to me on the stage, to which my whole attention was drawn. And more—in Jonathan Pryce’s Andre, I glimpsed not just my grandfather, but myself as well. I realized how much I was, even in my constant attempt to pretend nothing ever happened, affected by and living with the past. How much of my identity and thought process was even now under its influence: I was still my mother’s daughter, seeing the world as she taught me to, hoping she would approve of me, perhaps even be proud of me. The play provided the push that drew all this out of my subconscious. It gave me the means and encouragement to live with and face the past—face who I am.
Jump to October, 2019. Apparently, the interviews had went well, because I was back in England as a first-year student. I survived freshers’ week, survived matriculation, and took a train to London to see the revival of the National’s Translations, written by Brian Friel—I’d almost forgotten about it, but it had reasserted itself into my memory.
And that is what the play does: it reasserts the past back into the public consciousness. It is about the anglicization of Irish place names, but everyone, including the characters, know that it’s more than just place names: it’s a clash between cultures which develops into a convergence of cultures, strongly hinting at cultural imperialism. The schoolmaster Hugh, monumentally played by Ciarán Hinds, remarks, “it is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history, that shape us, but images of the past (…) we must never cease renewing those images; because once we do, we fossilize.”
We must renew our images of the past—there is a reason the National Theatre (emphasis on “national”) staged this play twice. Translationsis a much-needed reminder of the necessity of knowing and discussing and renewing the images of the past. By bringing back to the public mind the cultural and political clashes between Ireland and Britain, it provides a context in which we can deal with today’s issues of even greater cultural conflict and convergence that globalization brought upon us. It has acted as a cautionary check on globalism’s side effects, such as the coexistence of different languages and norms, reminding us to acknowledge and act in accordance with our cultural and historical context: our past.