Translations Abbey Theatre
Brian Friel’s masterpiece Translations is the most translated and staged play in the English language in the second half of the 20th century.
This is somewhat ironic, since Friel’s message is one of towering cultural nationalism on behalf of the Irish language. But had his play been written in Irish, it would never have risen above any known cultural radar. Master playwright though he was, Friel was not one to recognise irony.
When his central character, embittered hedge schoolmaster Hugh in Ballybeg (still Baile Beag in 1833, when the play is set) tells newly arrived military cartographer Lieutenant Yolland that “We tend to overlook your island”, it is the silent declaration of philosophical war that inhabits all Friel’s work.
It’s a deliberate drunken insult to the young man attempting to make conversation by saying Wordsworth was a family neighbour in his own English home village.
We like to believe ourselves indifferent to our neighbouring island; the reality – even today, when attention is necessary – is that we are obsessed with it, to the point of defining Irishness as not being British.
And there are many ways of interpreting and staging Translations. In those that I have seen, it is most commonly played as a tragic love story foundering on vicious murder.
The linguistic misunderstandings – as young Máire, already trying to climb from the trap of vying cultures, yearns in Irish after the impetuously infatuated Yolland, declaring himself in English – make us aware of the cultural imperative.
But though the shadowy figures of the revolutionary Donnelly twins will fracture their burgeoning love affair, and indeed the peaceful lives of the village people, it is Máire’s loss that we mourn, and her probably appalling future as an Irish immigrant in America. The political imperative is a poor second.
However, in Caitríona McLaughlin’s new production for the Abbey (her second Friel in her first year as the theatre’s artistic director), there is a fierce political rage. It is as though the people of Ballybeg have been lying in resentful wait for the “invader” in the persons of those who will “standardise” their ancient place names (standardise meaning Anglicise).
The impression is of a directorial eye, stirring a pot of negativity – amounting almost to hatred – that overwhelms the personal tragedies being played out. A reading of McLaughlin’s programme note goes some way to explain it.
She writes that 2022 marks the centenary of the partition of Ireland. The foundation of the Irish State is not mentioned, nor the accompanying fact that official enforcement over the century of its existence has not made the Irish people sufficiently interested in a revival of Irish as a spoken language.
Overall, she seems more than fully to endorse Friel’s determinedly narrow vision of what constitutes Irishness and Irish culture; he has, after all, disowned Shaw, Sheridan, Goldsmith and Wilde among others as having nothing to do with Ireland.
None of this overwhelms some fine performances however, though Brian Doherty’s Hugh is less pivotal than other interpretations I have seen. Zara Devlin makes a somewhat terse Máire, with Marty Rea beautifully internalising the pathos of the lame Manus.
Leonard Buckley makes an impetuous Owen, but Aidan Moriarty’s accent as Yolland is less than convincing. There is also a tendency for him and Howard Teale as Captain Lancey to verge on caricature at times. Suzie Seweify makes an appealing Sarah, struggling from silence to speech in an uncaring world and reminding us that this is a play about language. Ronan Leahy is impressive in the almost impossible role of Jimmy Jack, wrapped in filthy layers, and lost in a fantasy world of lewd old age.
It’s a co-production with Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, and will tour in August and September to Limerick, Galway, and An Grianán in Donegal.
Joanna Parker’s set design is impressively detailed for a touring production, and Catherine Fay’s costumes emphasise the dim austerity of the bleak village life of the time, all lit by Paul Keogan.
Translations, along with many other of Friel’s plays, has in the past been given a rapturous reception in Britain, and showered with awards, just as the creator was made a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society.
One can’t help wondering if we would be capable of such reciprocal generosity.