Brian Friel has the ability to make a world that is disconnected – historically, culturally, linguistically – from ours still seem deeply personal. The characters he creates, the grandly poetic yet comprehensible quality of his writing, the detailed and tender interactions between characters – these elements are abundant in Translations, probably his most famous play.
In early 19th century Donegal, in a village called Ballybeg (or Baile Beag) English soldiers have come to map the country and to translate Gaelic names into English equivalents. In the process the idyllic community of Ballybeg is disturbed as they try to decide whether, in losing their names, these places lose a piece of their history.
Translations presents various layers of language and interpretation through a variety of frustrating barriers. Not only is there the language barrier between the English soldiers and the Irish inhabitants on a general level, there is also the very personal frustration between Maire and Yolland who start to fall in love without really being able to understand each other. Then there is the barrier between Sarah, who can barely speak, and the others within her own linguistic community.
Friel’s treatment of the notion of translation is profound: the Gaelic place names have several anglicised equivalents, and the ones that Owen and Yolland (in charge of translation) settle on are completely open to their interpretation – or rather their mere whim. Some Gaelic names are old enough, in a community in which few can read or write, that it only takes a couple of generations before corruptions start to seep in, Chinese whispers style, and what was once Tobair Bhriain is now Tobair Vree and no one knows why it has its name in the first place (except Owen, who was told by his grandfather). So what does it matter that it changes?
The frequent quotes from Latin and Greek, mainly Homer and Vergil, provide a subtle, ancient reflection of the idea of the transmission of knowledge: while the Odyssey would have been passed from bard to bard orally, before someone had the knowledge and tools to commit it to writing, and thereby not being able to avoid the precarious nature of the survival of spoken word, the Aeneid, written 800 years later in a society in which writing flourished, was less at risk of being forgotten. It was composed as a written text, more permanent and more able to secure its own immortality.
Literature from a society without the ability to write, however good the memory of its inhabitants, will be more susceptible to time’s erosive abilities. So would these Gaelic names have survived much longer anyway?
The language barriers allow for some classic and well performed comedy moments, miscommunications and mistranslations in the style of the Two Ronnies at their best. Where the comedy becomes a bit too broad, however, is in Hugh’s (Niall Buggy) and Jimmy Jack’s (John Conroy) constant drunkenness. Onstage inebriation is difficult to achieve successfully. Buggy brings a bit of subtlety to the way he plays it – he enters staggering and slurring his speech, but slips immediately into his regular magisterial teaching mode, remembering perfectly the Latin and Greek derivations he demands from his students. It was played as though the drunkenness was an act in itself, Hugh’s own self-induced communication barrier between him and the people around him.
Friel sets up the inevitability of the miserable ending from the outset, but it is no less depressing that it actually comes. The community spirit, the begrudging love and deep affection and – above all – long won familiarity between the residents of Ballybeg, extremely touching and gratifying at its beginning, irreversibly disintegrates as the English army forces them to form opinions, to decide on allegiances. This stands out particularly in Beth Cooke’s performance as Maire: she has an easy grace and coy charm towards the beginning that makes a later scene, in which she is utterly distressed at George’s disappearance, deeply affecting.
Design by Lucy Osborne and direction by James Grieve have a simplicity that is elevated by intricate details: the entire play is set outside one shabby house that is surrounded by reminders of the wholly pastoral setting: the characters sit on milking stools during lessons, poteen drunk from reused brown bottles.
I’ve talked far more about the play than the production, even if it has been studied to death by A level students, because the entire cast inhabited the characters with such ease that the play was allowed to speak for itself. It’s a complete classic. From the three acts, to the magnificent structure both in terms of overall plot and recurring details, the poetic and rhythmic writing, the real characters. All these strengths were given their due in James Grieve’s beautiful, heartfelt production.
Images by Mark Douet.