Millennium Forum’s plot summary of ‘Translations’ reminds us it is over thirty years since this play was first performed.
Which also reminds this reviewer of a late friend, stage manager on that first production, recollecting his reaction on first reading the script – ‘this will never work’. He was referring to a scene in which two actors talk to one another in two completely different languages, although both are mostly speaking English, of which more anon.
It does work, of course, but is a demonstration of how easily we all make mistakes and misjudgements, and readily misunderstand what others are trying to say. For ‘Translations’ is truly a play on language in every sense, offering us the richness of Gaelic, Latin and echoes of Anglo-Saxon.
The original production was lauded and awarded and thus presents a particularly hard act for subsequent ones to follow.
Which is something of the problem Millennium Forum wrestle with here. Friel’s mid-nineteenth century evocation of his frequent setting, Ballybeg, somewhere on the Donegal / Tyrone? border, is invaded by British army engineers, intent on surveying the teroir of the natives into territory comprehensible to a monoglot bureaucracy, ignorant and uncomprehending of other ways of viewing and verbalising the environment.
The survey team include Lieutenant Yolland (Paul Woodson), an Englishman captivated by his new surroundings and the language of its inhabitants, and Owen (Dermott Hickson), son of the hedge-school master Hugh (Des McAleer). Owen is initially content to embrace the ways of the modernising incomers, but becomes more pernickety than his English friend over matters linguistic and territorial.
Hugh is aided in his school-mastering by his other son, Manus (Barry John Ward), who has his own frustrated ambitions, as does one of their pupils, Marie (Jade Yourell), though hers are to learn English in order to assist her escape from Ballybeg. Her fellow pupils are intended in part as a representation of conflicting responses to the fate that awaits them all; assimilation into English-driven intercourse which places commerce at the heart of its debates or an acceptance of the marginalisation of what Hugh and his favourite pupil, the ageing Jimmy Jack (Niall Cusack), cherish in their pedantry and nostalgia for past times.
The seed of this tragic encounter between two sensibilities bears fruit when Yolland disappears after courting Marie at a dance, which scene, efflorescent in Gaelic, English, Latin and echoes of Anglo-Saxon, tears elegantly at the heart of the matter. Yolland’s disappearance provides the excuse and opportunity for his superior, Captain Lancey (Nick Tizzard), to take punitive action against the community, and ‘Translations’ ends with Hugh reciting a classical epitaph for another doomed civilisation.
This is a respectful interpretation of Friel’s play, and both Stuart Marshall’s set design and Conleth White’s lighting serve it well, although bathing Ballybeg in Mediterranean sunlight in the first act and a louring sky in the second seemed unduly obvious.
There’s a lightness and sureness of touch in Friel’s script, even when dealing with deconstruction, and if something feels to be missing from this production, or perhaps adds unduly to the baggage it necessarily carries, it’s a sense of the play as a play, rather than an artefact to be treated with a respect that borders on the reverential.
There’s a tale told of director Trevor Nunn once threatening a playwright that he would direct the writer’s play ‘exactly as you’ve written it’. One had the sense that Brian Friel’s classic had unintentionally been given such treatment. A little more application of the imagination could have lifted a fine production into a truly great one.
Til 20th April