Sunday, May 01, 2022

Translations – Friel’s unorthodox script and structure continues to powerfully speak about identity and language (Lyric Theatre until Sunday 29 May)

If the script of Translations was pitched to a producing theatre today, I wonder would it be returned with the electronic equivalent of red pen suggesting that it was too baggy, had too many characters, too many unresolved plot points, and needed a complete rewrite of its fade-to-black ending.

Yet, this lack of conformity in Brian Friel’s play, first performed in 1980, perhaps exposes the beauty of the subtext that so strongly runs underneath the dialogue. The play’s form is nearly secondary to its concept.

Today, as in 1833 Baile Begg, language can be divisive, or at least used to divide. Cultures can be respected or undermined. The meaning of words and events can be changed of forgotten. The urge to colonise can be resisted or ignored. People asserting power over others can pivot from patronising to threatening in an instant. So it goes, to borrow Kurt Vonnegut’s refrain.

I’ve often heard and read radio and newspaper commentary about the play and its original production by Field Day Theatre Company in Derry. But until yesterday, I’d never seen a production of Friel’s Translations. That may seem implausible, or embarrassing, but it’s not staged that often, and during the interval I was somewhat relieved to bump into a theatre producer who also admitted this was his first time seeing the play. Phew. I wasn’t alone.

One of the things I loved about visits to the Lyric Theatre as a child was the open stage. As you sat waiting for a performance to begin, the set – or at least the parts that were visible – were already starting a dialogue with the audience about their shape and form and who might inhabit the empty space. Joanna Parker’s slanted set in the Abbey/Lyric production immediately speaks out about the very landscape being unstable. Every piece of wooden furniture is wonky, while an enormous plumb bob hangs ominously over the school teacher’s desk.

The opening scene introduces the Irish-medium ‘hedge school’. And the audience are quickly aware that we’re hearing the characters’ Irish conversations in English, later hearing English conversations and delighting in the misunderstandings and deliberate misinterpretations between languages. Throw in some Latin and Greek and it’s like a 19th century Open University summer school with young and old brought together by their love, or need, for learning.

Hugh (Brian Doherty) imposes his style of etymological quizzing on the students, while his academically talented son Manus (Marty Rea) manages much of the practical operation of the school unimpeded by his lame foot. Ronan Leahy captures the poet in his portrayal of older eternal scholar Jimmy Jack whose head is constantly in the mythological clouds. The evasive Doalty (Andy Doherty) provides the first sense of the unease with which the indigenous community view the Ordinance Survey operation to map out the island of Ireland and standardise – ie, anglicise – the placenames.

The two uniformed sappers bring a splash of striking colour to the stage. While Captain Lancey (Howard Teale) has the job of persuading the locals that there’s nothing to fear about the mapping exercise (before turning nasty), Aidan Moriarty has much more fun playing Lancey’s younger colleague Lieutenant Yolland who is falling in love with the local poteen, the Irish language, the stories behind the place names, and perhaps even one of the local women. Acting as translator and collaborator for the English mappers is Hugh’s younger son Owen (Leonard Buckley), an entrepreneur who knows and freely shares the significance of his home culture but no longer appreciates it, preferring the rich cash of his overlords.

Some of the most fascinating characters in Translations are the women. They assume roles of service – feeding, clearing up – and there’s a stack of misogyny – from being flirted with, fondled, and being eyed up to keep the men ‘jigged up’. Like so many of the backstories, Friel doesn’t bother to explain Sarah’s difficulty with speaking. Suzie Seweify’s Sarah is fully integrated into the school room, and so fluently contributes to conversations with her signing and gestures. Her guttural scream is the equivalent of several pages of dialogue. It’s by far the most haunting moment in the play.

Brigid represents rural superstition and is thick as thieves with Doalty and equally opaque about possible acts of resistance towards the English mappers. She’s played by Ruby Campbell, ably understudying an injured Holly Hannaway.

Milkmaid Maire has more perspective and a greater urge to escape than anyone else in Baile Begg. She knows that the new national English-language school threatens the cosy learning environment run by Hugh. Her betrothal to Manus is hampered by his lack of get up and go, and she’s not afraid to tell him. She can see over the horizon to opportunities in America. Zara Devlin fills Maire with longing and a yearning for more, and her pivotal “Don't stop, I know what you're saying” scene with Yolland brilliantly mixes passion with placenames, delivering comedy and upset in equal measure.

Making absolutely no attempt to wrap up the loose ends – What did happen to the Donnelly twins? Was Yolland found? Did Manus make it to Mayo? Did Sarah find her speech? – Friel instead leaves the audience to ponder his statements about identity, like “civilisations can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour that doesn't match the language of fact” and “words are signals, counters – they are not immortal”. Words can trap us despite their shifting meaning and our shifting sensibilities. And they can also make space for accommodation and new beginnings. Just ask local political leaders about that!

Friel’s play has lost none of its potency and the Lyric Theatre and Abbey Theatre production gives it space to speak. The 80-minute first half is followed by another 55 minutes after the interval. You could map most of Stranmillis in that time …

Caitríona McLaughlin’s direction makes good use of the skewed set and builds up a feeling that a catastrophe – agricultural, educational, or political – is just around the corner. The musical interludes between acts are apt, though it feels out of character for Sarah’s character to be singing when her speech is so slight. Translations is blessed on paper with a clever ending, but one that nearly defies direction. That the Saturday matinee audience didn’t know the performance had ended when Hugh’s voice faded along with the stage lights suggests that a radical reimagining of those lines isn’t out of the question for the next company brave enough to stage the play.

Translations continues at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast until Sunday 29 May. It transfers to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin over the summer from 13 June–13 August, before touring through Limerick (16–20 August), Galway (23–27 August) and Donegal (30 August–3 September).

Photo credits: Johnny Frazer

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