Blarney or Blimey? Review of New World Theatre’s “Translations”
Brian Friel’s play “Translations” is a finely crafted, beautifully written piece of theatre. Anchored in Ireland in the 1830s, its themes are transcendent, posing the question of how language is used between people, cultures, lovers, and countries. An excellent choice for New World Theatre Club which ably rises to the challenge.
Colonialisation of country and language
When the British Army was tasked with mapping Ireland, in true colonial fashion this included anglicising the existing place names. Friel sets his play in the village of Baile Beag (Ballybog) where the soldiers have recently arrived. The location is the village “hedge” school, in a set which perfectly uses the space available. The recent introduction of a universal free education system will make the teaching of English mandatory; the Irish language is being squeezed from both directions.
The villagers are divided as to whether this is a good thing. Maire, beautifully played by Rhona Richards, dreams of going to America and longs to learn English, a longing made even more desperate when she meets the English Lieutenant. But Manus, in a finely nuanced performance by Martin Campion, the lame son of the schoolmaster, does not speak English in front of the soldiers, even though he can.
With the arrival of the soldiers the tone changes. The English have hired the services of a native of the village (Manus’ brother) who has taken the King’s shilling to translate for them. Owen is the returning prodigal who has escaped the village to run a successful business in the city. Gav Guilfoyle rises to the challenge of this pivotal role with authority.
Outsider as insider
The young soldier, Lieutenant Yolland, is completely captivated by the village. Julien Farlin, perfectly shows us the wide-eyed delight of Yolland who sees Baile Beag as an Eden he will never attain and intuitively understands that even if he learns Irish he will still remain an outsider. Admission to the tribe is only possible for those who are born into it. But he longs to stay there, living the idyllic life he imagines, preferably with Maire who fascinates him.
And the Englishman seems indeed more sensitive than the native Owen to the difficulty of the translation of the names. Owen sees it as a job to be done. But how can the soul of a name be translated? How can the history of a place be honoured and respected for future generations? In a powerful scene between Yolland and Owen, the two men discuss this and it seems the native Irishman who is keener to move on.
Yolland leaves a village dance with Maire, who has previously had an understanding with Manus. Theirs is a beautiful love scene in which no translation is needed. The one English phrase Maire has memorized is a trite statement about maypoles and Norfolk. George is so delighted by it that she fears her aunt told her something naughty. They use the universal language of lovers throughout the ages but this precipitates an event which shows how dangerous it is to try to become native of something to which one is not born.
New World and director John Turnbull have pulled off a fine ensemble piece of theatre which runs the whole range of emotions and is definitely a must-see. The audience leaves wanting to know more – always a good way to leave the theatre.
By Dena Jones