Translations – Lyric Theatre – Review
Tue 26 Apr—Sun 29 May 2022
Translations by Brian Friel, a Lyric Theatre and Abbey Theatre Co-Production
Photos by Johnny Frazer
In the forty years since it was first staged, Brian Friel’s Translations has come to be regarded as a modern classic and is considered one of his best plays in a very crowded field. In this robust and moving co-production between the Lyric Theatre, Belfast and the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, its epic breadth is rendered with intimacy and intelligence.
Throughout his work, Friel displays an uncanny ability to interrogate complex meanings through simple narratives and here he vividly captures a moment of historical transition. The setting is rural Ireland in 1833, on the eve of the potato famine and the introduction of English as an emerging dominant language, events that create an emotionally and politically charged environment as demonstrated by a foreboding plumb bob, which hangs ominously over the stage.
The rural hedge school in Baile Beag, where classes are conducted in Irish, is to be replaced by a national education system in which English will be the official language. Concurrently, British soldiers are engaged in an ordnance survey involving the anglicisation of Irish place names. Friel explores these radical changes through their impact on individuals: in particular, Hugh (Brian Doherty), the local teacher steeped in Latin and Greek rather than English; his bilingual son, Owen (Leonard Buckley), who acts as translator for the occupying forces; and a naive English lieutenant, Yolland (Aidan Moriarty), who all too easily succumbs to a romanticised version of Ireland.
The change that these events bring forces all the characters to confront their feelings about language, identity and place. Names may be arbitrary, the play suggests, but they also have a personal significance that cannot be denied.
As schoolmaster Hugh and his classics-obsessed chum Jimmy Jack, Brian Doherty and Ronan Leahy ground the action in a comic double-act that widens to reveal a tragic almost Beckettian trajectory. Leonard Buckley as Owen ably embodies the guilt of a man caught between two competing worlds and two different aspects of his own life. Marty Rea is a thoughtful and charismatic presence as his brother Manus, who can only watch as his future dreams crumble before him. Aidan Moriarty invests Yolland with a winning sincerity and he and Zara Devlin as the headstrong Maire play their love scene with an exquisite sensitivity.
Suzie Seweify as mute, nervous Sarah is incredibly compelling and she depicts an innate understanding for her character with little to no lines. Her primal scream during the second half is one of the most powerful moments of the play, a final pagan howl for a life that has slipped through her fingers.
Caitríona McLaughlin’s subtle yet sure-footed direction successfully manages the internal tensions of the play while allowing its complexities to shine through. The groundwork that is laid down in the first act comes to emotional fruition in the second half, which contains a series of incredibly powerful and poignant scenes.
The production also benefits from evocative work from Joanna Parker’s abstract sloping set and painterly lighting design from Paul Keogan, both of which are integral to the nuanced framing of the production.
Translations is a play about words – their strength and their lack. Place names take on prayer-like incantations and communication flourishes through means other than shared language. This production goes deeper, to explore the gradual inevitability of change, the importance of place and the power of language to transform realities. Through impressive staging, intelligent performances and a deep respect for the text, this emotionally satisfying production of Translations is a reminder that it still has something new to offer audiences today.