Friel play of power and words resonates
ADRIAN Dunbar’s take on ‘Translations’ launched in the Millennium Forum on Wednesday (March 13) appropriately two weeks before Londonderry celebrates its 400th birthday and also during Seachtain na Gaeilge.
Set in small-town Donegal - literally (Baile Beag) - Brian Friel’s examination of the collision of the Gaelic and English worlds in the west of Ireland in the 1830s was first put on by Field Day in the Guildhall in 1980.
Written two years after Edward Said explained why Westerners are doomed never to understand places such as Cairo and Mumbai, Friel’s play addresses much the same kind of stuff but more succinctly and closer to home.
Turmoil ensues when the Royal Engineers arrive in Baile Beag to find out who owns what, map it, name it and realise a more ‘equitable tax return’ for the Crown - ie, squeeze more money out of the place.
The world of windbag hedgeschoolmaster Hugh (Des McAleer - Angela’s Ashes, Hunger) threatens to fall apart with the arrival of map-maker cum soldier and meat-and-spuds psychopath Captain Lancey (Nick Tizzard - EastEnders, Casualty).
In train with Lancey follow the generous-spirited orthographer, Lieutenant Yolland (Paul Woodson - Eternal Law, Day of the Triffids), and Hugh’s prodigal son Owen (Dermot Hickson - An Innocent Abroad, 6 Degrees), who is cast in the role of King’s shilling-taker in chief due to his acceptance of a post as paid interpreter for the expedition.
The pair - through a combination of laziness, clothearedness and apathy - set about making a complete hames of the standardisation of the local toponymy - for example, inexplicably rendering Bun na hAbhann as Burnfoot and Druimdubh as Dromduff, much to the amusement of the scoffing locals.
Hugh’s pupils by turns treat the effort with various degrees of ridicule, humour and fascination.
Loveable lecher and avid Classics scholar Jimmy Jack (Niall Cusack), the anarchic Doalty (Conan Sweeny - who played Red Hugh O’Donnell in Friel’s ‘Making History’ in the Guildhall in 2007), the effervescent Bridget (Muireann Bird - Rough Diamond) and the pragmatic Máire Cathach (Jade Yourell - Fair City, Happy Ever Afters) are amongst his acolytes who take various stances in relation to the newcomers.
Though Hugh has been teaching for over 30 years and has steadfastly refused to instruct in the English language until now (1833), sticking to his native tongue and the Classics only, the arrival of the Royal Engineers brings new pressure to bear.
The headstrong Máire - informally engaged to Hugh’s other son Manus (Barry John Ward - Sunburn, The Claim) - soon becomes embroiled in a love triangle with Lieutenant Yolland with dark consequences ultimately. The off stage malcontents - the Donnelly brothers - are implicated.
Máire’s dalliance with Yolland at the expense of Manus, her lonely championship of English - the language of the United States where she dreams of going - is at the crux of what Jimmy Jack sums up as the dualism of endogamy and exogamy - whether to marry inside or outside the group. Not, as Jimmy Jack says, something to be done lightly.
The weighty consideration of how language acts as brute power’s second is lightened, however, by comic turns, a highlight being a tight Jimmy Jack’s declaration that Athene wants to marry him and that he has to go and talk to Zeus about it in the morning.
Amid the levity and the profound moments there’s always Sarah (Genevieve Louise Barr - Shameless, The Fades) - the soul of the play - whose catatonic state evokes the communication breakdown at its heart.
And although the audience is enticed to treat the various characters as symbols of one approach to colonisation or another, it’s never that simple. Positions shift and evolve throughout, reflecting the complexity of the matter.
Dunbar’s interpretation is produced by Millennium Forum Productions and the set and lighting - particularly the scene depicting Yolland and Máire’s starlit love-making on the white strand - are as evocative of rural Donegal as you’re likely to get in a theatre.
The Fermanagh man also follows in the footsteps of the big names who have brought Friel’s masterpiece to life in the city in the past: Stephen Rae played Owen and Liam Neeson played Doalty in its original incarnation in 1980.
Ovid and Horace aficionado Jimmy Jack with his frequent Greco-Roman outbursts might have coddingly said: ‘aliquando bonus dormitat Frielus.’ But no-one is sleeping on this production.
Translations plays in Cork Opera House (Wednesday, March 20 - Saturday, March 23); the Gaiety (Monday, March 25 - Saturday, March 30); Clwyd Theatre (Tuesday, April 9 - Saturday, April 13); King’s Theatre (Monday, April 15 - Saturday, April 20); culminating in the Grand Opera House (Tuesday, April 23 - Saturday, April 27).
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Weather for Londonderry
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 14 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: South west
Temperature: 9 C to 15 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: South west