YVONNE LYSANDROU is impressed by the quality of production and artistic integrity of this revival of a classic
Rose Theatre, Kingston
Brian Friels’ Translations was the inaugural play that launched the Field Day Theatre Company in 1980 in Ireland, an ambitious and now legendary project that sought to address the social and political crisis through a series of cultural interventions.
Translations was to be a powerful contribution to that debate as it returns to a fraught period of Irish history, the 1830s, when the British army and colonial cartographers arrived in Ireland to remap the country and rename it from Irish Gaelic to the King’s English.
The setting is in and around a hedge school inhabited by impoverished pupils learning Latin and Greek and run by the Master, Hugh, played by Niall Buggy in an exceptional performance.
However, as the hedge school will soon be replaced by the new national school where English will be the official language, the question arises as to whether a people can retain their identity and cultural distinction when adopting the language of another people.
Can they, as Owen (Cian Barry) states: “adjust for survival”? can they make these words their “new home”?
Maire, who knows she needs to learn English to survive and wants to go to the US, is well played by Beth Cooke who captures the desperation and poignant plight of this character in a moving portrayal of a young woman on the brink of destruction.
Friel avoids any crude reductionism to stereotype between coloniser and colonised especially in a touching scene with the young cartographer Yolland (James Northcote), who has fallen in love with all things Irish including Maire. This scene is pivotal both dramatically and linguistically as we the audience hear Maire speaking English but know she can only speak Gaelic and that Yolland can only speak English.
In other words, the play before us spoken in English bears witness to the death of a language.
My only quibble is with the stage set where the 19th century rural barn of the hedge school, designed by Lucy Osborne, looked a bit too grand.
Furthermore, although Niall Buggy as Hugh gave a commanding performance in his tragic/comic portrayal, nevertheless, in otherwise flawless direction by James Grieve, the end of the play is weak in my view.
It shows Hugh only momentarily at a loss in his final monologue, whereas in the playtext he is, by the end, totally incoherent and confused to the point that his fluency in Greek and Latin now completely elude him as the lights slowly come down on his faltering speech, which should be in a whisper not in a booming voice as projected here. Hugh knows that this “new home” is not his.
This said, productions of this play of this quality and at this level of artistic integrity don’t come around very often and should be seen.