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A CurtainUp London Review
by Neil Dowden
Brian Friel is Ireland's greatest living playwright, and Translations is probably his greatest play. Friel's status has certainly been confirmed in London this year as his play Aristocrats was also revived at the National Theatre in the summer and his new play The Home Place was recently in the West End. Translations was first staged in 1980 as the launch production of the Irish Field Day Theatre Company, founded by Friel and the actor Stephen Rea, when it featured a youthful Liam Neeson.
This National Theatre Education mobile production, finally reaching London after a nationwide tour, may primarily be aimed at schoolchildren for whom Translations is an examination text, but it makes no concessions under Sean Holmes's assured direction. The action may take place in County Donegal in the north-west of Ireland in the 1830s, but the themes reflect what was going on when Friel was writing, namely the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Although not explicitly a political play, Translations has powerful political implications regarding the conflict between Irish nationalism and British colonialism but avoids simplifying the issues in a partisan way.
Set in the fictional community of Baile Beag (or BallyBeg), it captures the moment when Irish cultural identity was threatened by two changes, both involving the replacement of the Irish language by English. Firstly, the local "hedge-schools", where despite poor facilities a basic education was provided using Gaelic, were being supplanted by the more advanced English-language National Schools. And secondly, the British Army Royal Engineers Corps were systematically mapping out the whole country with the Ordnance Survey, which involved anglicizing Irish place names.
With a rival National School about to open, we meet Hugh O'Donnell (Kenny Ireland), the hard-drinking but scholarly hedge-school master, his son and assistant, Manus (David Ganly) and some of their pupils, including the young woman Maire (Mairéad McKinley) who yearns to learn English and escape to America but who is tacitly engaged to Manus. When Hugh's other son Owen (Billy Carter) returns from Dublin as the interpreter/translator of the British soldiers drawing up maps of the area, Maire and the romantically minded Lieutenant Yolland (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) fall in love, with tragic consequences.
On Anthony Lamble's straw-bestrewn, barn-like set, Friel's subtle and ambivalent examination of a clash of cultures is played out initially with humour but darkens later. There is at first much comic value in the misunderstandings between the Irish and the English speakers (though only English is spoken on stage, Friel cleverly makes it clear when characters are speaking Gaelic), especially when Owen deliberately mistranslates what one side is saying to the other out of a misguided hope of fostering friendly relations. The love scene between Maire and Yolland, who communicate their feelings for each other through Irish place names and body language, is both funny and tender.
But although "progress" is being brought to this inward- and backward-looking part of rural Ireland through better schools and "standardization" of topographical names, there is still a strong sense that the gradual erosion of the Irish language is inevitably part of a process of political repression.
In a strong ensemble cast, Kenny Ireland presides as the pompous and loquacious Hugh, while Billy Carter shows how Owen grows disillusioned with his well-intentioned efforts as go-between and David Ganly's Manus becomes more overtly hostile towards the English as personal motives arise. Mairéad McKinley is a touchingly passionate Maire and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor makes a likeably naïve Yolland. As the latter presciently says, the translation of place names is "an eviction of sorts".
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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