Brian Friel’s Translations is a play that works on money levels to portray Ireland under British rule – until a final confusing 20 minutes.
On the interweb, as a companion to the legendary/controversial Crap Towns is the Crap Map of the British Isles. Highlights include Northern Scotland (marked at “Winter”), a group of Home Counties around Buckinghamshire (“Tories”), my own north-east England (“Rust”) and London (“Hipsters, Bankers and Riots”). The Republic of Ireland, however, is summarised quite concisely with “It’s Complicated” (and Northern Ireland gets “It’s Very Complicated”). If, however, you want someone to expand on just how complicated it is, a good point of reference is Brian Friel’s classic play Translations, which toured to Northern Stage. I partly saw this as an apology to the Rose Theatre Kingston (who produced the play in partnership with English Touring Theatre), whose play I considered and rejected on my last London visit in favour of another play I bitterly regret choosing. But I’m glad I chose to see this one.
This play is often described as a “word play”, where critics try to outdo each other on how clever the play addresses the subject of language. In my opinion, that description does the play a disservice, because this is liable to put punters off as a play trying to be clever. In fact, the issue of language is only one of many layers of a play convincingly recreating a rural hamlet in 19th century Ireland. Even there, attitudes to the British rulers vary hugely. There’s Hugh, the schoolteacher who will teach Irish, Greek and Latin but never English; son Manus, too proud to take up opportunities teaching English himself; Manus’s fiancée Máire, who wants to learn English to escape to America, and other son Owen who has happily been working with the British for years as an interpreter. And the story begins with Owen returning home on business with Lance, who announces the plans to draw maps of rural Ireland on behalf of Her Majesty’s government – with the tact and diplomacy equal to that of your Auntie Pru at a same-sex wedding reception. But also with him is Yolland, a young soldier tasked with producing Anglicised place names – who thinks Ireland and its language is wonderful.
The “word play” element everyone goes on about is that all actors on stage speak in English, even when in the story they speak to each other in Irish. This means there’s several moments when Owen “creatively” translates from one language to the other. It’s a clever technique with audience acceptance well managed by the writer, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary compared with liberties taken in other plays – wioth one exception. With Yolland’s love for Ireland and Máire’s excitement for the wider world, they fall in love, even though they speak little of each other’s languages. As a result, there is one of the most most beautiful love scenes I’ve ever seen on stage where Yolland and Máire express their true feelings for each other even though neither understand the other’s words – and they don’t have to. Sadly, however, neither of them read Romeo and Juliet, because if they had they would have know this sort of thing always ends badly. You might think – what with the Irish thinking Yolland’s an okay kind of guy Máire being the sort the British would consider a model subject of their Empire – people might be a bit more accommodating in this situation. Sorry, no.
This production is directed by James Grieve. When it’s a tried and tested classic, there’s not really much needed from a director apart from understanding the play and generally knowing what he’s doing, which he does. There’s certainly no need to add your individual mark as a director. But he nonetheless puts some individual touches in. One early touch got on my nerves: early in the play, people were plonked at the front masking dialogue elsewhere on the stage – that might have been necessary on Rose’s thrust stage, but there was no need to do that at Northern Stage. Other than that, it was a good job. I really liked the dance after the interval, especially a reluctant Yolland trying so hard to take part in a dance he doesn’t know. I also really like the subtle way that the background noise started all tranquil and serene, only to slowly slip into wind and thunder as the tension arose – a similar achievement of an atmospheric set to what Rose/ETT did in Ghosts.
I have just one problem with the play – the extremely confusing ending. When the tension has been so masterfully ramped up throughout the play, I expected some sort of resolution. I’m not sure what exactly the ending was supposed to achieve – and I don’t think it was a simple matter of trying to be clever for the sake of it – but the end product for me was a final twenty minutes where not a lot happened, at the time when I most wanted something to. Frustratingly, this meant I left feeling I’d only seen a good play when it could have been an excellent one.
But I would still recommend watching this. Other people might like endings this ambiguous, and even if you don’t, I’d recommend this play in spite of it. This could easily have been a partisan play portraying either brutality of British Imperialism or early Irish terrorism, but there are plenty of plays that do this and they’re invariably tedious. This is a play that makes people think, and it’s much better than plays that tell people what to think. They can certainly be happy with the job they’ve done, and we should hope they come to the north-east again.