The Black Lives Matter protests in the US sparked by the death of George Floyd spread worldwide and have produced an offshoot of post-colonial soul-searching in our neighbouring island. This was most clearly articulated by the pitching of slave trader Edward Colston's statue into the Bristol harbour. It has often been said the British educational system doesn't teach much about colonialism, but this is not entirely true. Brian Friel's great play on the subject, Translations, has been on the A-Level syllabus for many years, providing an effective history lesson of its own, albeit in an English literature class.
There have consequently been major productions of Translations in recent times in the UK. A long-running one starring Ciarán Hinds at the National Theatre played in 2018 and 2019 and was recently made available during the lockdown as part of National Theatre at Home. It is one of the most widely seen and read of contemporary Irish plays in Britain.
Friel's play, first produced in 1980 by Field Day Theatre Company at the Guildhall in Derry, is about a Latin scholar who runs a hedge-school in fictional Ballybeg in the 1830s while that area of Donegal is subject to an Ordinance Survey mapping exercise by the British army. Translations is also a love story, with Máire, a local girl falling for one of the soldiers, Lieutenant Yolland.
There is much restive rebellion among the local people and Yolland goes missing. Reprisals ensue. The play is about the impact of colonialism on the populace, including the profound effect it has on language and location. In representing contentious subjects, the theatre treatment has an endless capacity for nuance. While there will frequently be villains on the stage, there will also always be humanity.
Colston's dunking has been followed by calls to remove statues of King Leopold II of Belgium. There is a general public knowledge of the savagery of the colonial regime in the Congo, although it has rarely been to the fore of popular debate.
But in 2018, the Irish-British playwright Martin McDonagh's new play A Very Very Dark Matter was the autumn season and Christmas show at the 900-seater Bridge Theatre in London. It featured Jim Broadbent as the fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen, who has a captive Congolese woman (Johnetta Eula'Mae Ackles) in his attic writing his stories. The play is an excoriation of the brutality of the Belgian Congo regime under Leopold II and a broad attack on how Europe has enriched itself and its culture at the expense of colonised countries. The play was certainly consciousness-raising, as well as being somewhat hair-raising in its violence. Two blood-spattered dead Belgian soldiers haunt the scenes. The Congolese woman has had her foot removed as a punishment. In one of the last lines of the play, the narrator (voiced by Tom Waits in the premiere) says: "It is a sad and sorry truth, that to this very day, all over Belgium - statues still stand to King Leopold the Second… always with a beard… often with a sword in his hands … never with blood on them."
Because Ireland was a colonised country, Irish writers have a habit of engaging with colonialism as a way of interrogating the present. With the resurgence of nationalism in the UK surrounding the Brexit debate, and the harking back to a time when Britannia ruled the waves, the whole idea of Britishness is currently up for grabs - and Britain is certainly divided. High-profile productions of these colonial-themed plays have formed part of the social mulch that have proved fertile for the emergence of this post-empire soul-searching.
The theatre is a perfect forum for political debate; its wordiness and its capacity for complexity provide much illumination, while the audience sits quietly in the dark.