Abbey Theatre, Dublin
When was the last time someone greeted you with this line: “Vesperal salutations to you all”? Much like the school students in the 19th-century garrison town of Brian Friel’s drama, your understanding of this mash-up of English and Latin may depend on your knowledge of classical antiquity.
Friel’s play is certainly one for the linguaphiles. A drunken master of the hedge school (Brian Doherty) is seen quizzing students on the Latin roots of words such as “verecund” and “acquiesced”. If presented self-importantly, the script’s bilingualism could come across as artificially vague. (To quote one character: “Come on, man, speak in English”.)
Impressively, Caitríona McLaughlin’s first ensemble play as artistic director of the Abbey Theatre seizes the emotional connection to these language games. For instance, the student Jimmy Jack (a lonely eccentric, played by Ronan Leahy) will translate Greek literature, and immerse himself in mythology, as an imaginary escape from rural isolation. Doherty’s schoolmaster may be a quick-thinking showman, but he’s on the verge of losing his classical curriculum — and his way of life — as a new national school prepares to open. Seemingly, language can be a portal into better, alternative realities.
Everything is changing in the village of Ballybeg, Friel’s famous version of Glenties. The struggle to survive is so difficult that the teacher Manus (a nicely judged Marty Rea) might have to watch his lover Máire (Zara Devlin) emigrate to America, while the presence of the Royal Engineers occupying the town brings his hard-headed brother Owen (a razor-sharp performance by Leonard Buckley) home as an interpreter.
Friel’s effective conceit — presenting the characters’ Irish speech as English — makes an audience fluent in all of the play’s languages. When an English soldier (Howard Teale) makes a condescending announcement to the hedge school’s students, it comes across to us, no less than the play’s Irish speakers, as embarrassingly foolish.
Yet, language is a serious, sacred thing in Friel’s drama. An English lieutenant, Yolland (Aidan Moriarty), takes a stand when he hears the anglicised translations of Irish placenames, replacing poetic-sounding destinations with overly literal creations. To wipe a name off a map is to erase a culture. If the palette of McLaughlin’s excellent staging is admirably muted, preferring the earthy tones of Paul Keogan’s lighting, the production may be gravely concerned about how these boundaries are currently being redrawn.
Such solemnity, however, refuses to lift for the play’s romance. In performance, Moriarty has all the gee-whiz naivete of Yolland, but this doesn’t heat up into something more intimate. Nor does Devlin deliver Máire’s straight-up rationalism as a contrast. Still, they are two people speaking different languages — he speaking English, she speaking Irish — who have little to say, yet plenty to listen to.
“You can learn to decode us,” someone tells Yolland, with encouragement, but it also sounds like a decent suggestion in the present moment of deteriorating negotiations. Much like the incomplete recollection of a schoolmaster, trying to recite Virgil at the play’s conclusion, the story of the two islands remains unfinished.
Runs until August 13th. Touring to Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick, Town Hall Theatre, Galway, and An Grianán, Donegal. abbeytheatre.ie