Writer: Brian Friel
Director: James Grieve
Designer: Lucy Osborne
Reviewer: Paul Couch
It’s a brave and somewhat curious choice for English Touring Theatre. Translations, written by Brian Friel in 1980, is a story of patriotism, love, confusions and (possibly but who knows?) tragedy set in the town of Ballybeg, County Donegal, in 1833. The English Army are busy mapping and anglicising the area for William IV, and the often-referenced Great Famine is less than a decade away.
Truth be told, Translations isn’t one of Friel’s best plays. It’s a linear tale with the feel of a 19th Century soap opera about it. The main problem is that it just doesn’t go anywhere, nor is there even a moral lesson for us to take away. The two potential elements of drama remain unresolved by its rather limp conclusion and the good folk of Ballybeg are left to carry on their hand-to-mouth existence. The Donnelly Twins have a lot – or perhaps nothing – to answer for.
In saying that, Friel’s dialogue is sharp and witty, and his characters beautifully crafted. It’s just the story that lets the whole thing down. James Grieve’s direction is concise and well-paced and, in the main, performances are superbly observed. A caveat to that thought is Paul Cawley’s Captain Lancey, whose menacing demeanour in the second act seems completely at odds with the red-coated buffoon we’re introduced to in the first. Both are fine portrayals within their own context but seem inconsistent with each other.
Front and centre is Hugh (Niall Buggy), who along with his son, Manus (Ciarán O’Brien), runs a hedge school in the town. Hugh is a loud, bombastic – though classically educated – drunkard whose best days are behind him. Lame, quiet Manus has taken on the role of parent in the absence of his more ambitious brother, Owen, played by Cian Barry, who has been absent for years while in search of his fortune and better prospects. Manus has his eye on a teaching place at one of the new-fangled National Schools, but doesn’t have the mhisneach to chase it.
Manus’ love interest is Máire, given with impish conviction by Beth Cooke, desperate to learn the English language in this purely Gaelic-speaking community so she may emigrate to America.
Indeed, the beauty, and etymology, of Translations is that most of the Irish characters are speaking in Gaelic (although we hear English) and Owen has to translate – often economically – between them and the British soldiers. This leads to several very funny and sometimes poignant scenes.
Lucy Osborne’s exquisitely naturalistic set is, it’s fair to say, just about squeezed onto the New Wolsey stage and James Farncombe’s simple lighting design holds its own.
All in all, not a bad outing for English Touring Theatre, but one of Brian Friel’s more robust plays, Philadelphia, Here I Come! or Dancing at Lughnasa, for example, might have served them better.