BWW Reviews: TRANSLATIONS, Rose Theatre Kingston, April 22 2014
Much has happened since Brian Friel wrote Translations (continuing at The Rose Theatre until 3 May): the Troubles are no more; scandals have weakened the Roman Catholic Church; and the Celtic Tiger has roared, but now whimpers. Despite those seismic political and social changes, perhaps the greatest single influence on how outsiders view rural Ireland is a television sitcom - quite simply, it is impossible to excise Father Ted from one's mind when a wild outpost of Ireland's Atlantic coast is the subject at hand. Though there are plenty of Irish eccentrics and no shortage of booze in the play's small town setting, Translations has more serious matters on its mind than the tomfoolery of Craggy Island.
An informal hedge school run by Hugh (a boozy turn from Niall Buggy) is threatened by the 1830s rollout of national schools, sponsored by the government. Bigger political shifts are underway too with British soldiers mapping - and re-naming - the villages scattered over Donegal. The locals are wary of British intent - not without cause - and cannot talk directly to their red-coated new arrivals, since they speak Irish and the British, as so often, speak solely English. That is, until Maire (a sensitive Beth Cooke) and Lieutentant Yolland (a burstingly idealistic James Northcote) find a means of communicating that involves using lips for purposes other than speech - which doesn't go down well at all with the Irish nor the British.
Friel's play is no lament for the stamping out of the indigenous tongue across much of 19th century Ireland, but a reflection on how language can trap and betray people. Maire longs for a new world (indeed the New World - America) and the English that will help her survive - but Hugh, the head of the hedge school, prefers the Latin and Greek of the classics. His son, Owen (an edgy Cian Barry), acts as translator between the Irish speakers and the English speakers, a foot in both camps, until he must choose and betray family or friends.
There are some laughs and moments of high drama in the al fresco schoolroom, but there's also an awful lot of spouting Greek and Latin poetry, chanted back in translation, indeed I confess that it got on my nerves. Though the play's subject of the power of language never goes out of date (see the works of Jorge Luis Borges for proof of that), I wondered about the relevance of the subject matter today. In many ways, the concerns of Ireland in 1980 are as far away as those of 1833 - at least, so it seems, just now.
Now, where's that Father Ted boxed set?