Lost in Translations

Brian Friel’s play has a subtlety that this latest production lacks


Gaiety Theatre, Dublin

Late in Brian Friel’s beautifully nuanced play of language and meaning, the master of a 19th-century hedge school, Hugh, states, “Confusion is not an ignoble condition.” By that logic, you couldn’t call Millennium Forum’s muddled staging, directed by Adrian Dunbar, ignoble, yet its purpose hardly seems clear.

It is 1833 in the Donegal town of Baile Beag, where the British Ordnance Survey of Ireland is mapping the country with such polite efficiency that it almost conceals the brutality of renaming it.

“Where there is ambiguity it will be anglicised,” explains Owen (Dermott Hickson), the soldiers’ cynical translator, to his sceptical brother, Manus (Barry Ward). Sadly, where there is ambiguity in Friel’s play, here it will be romanticised.

Just look at the students of the hedge school, an assembly of radiantly clean, barefoot villagers; girls wear lush red skirts and black shawls and men may accessorise with goatee beards and rakish sash belts. Set against the sun-bleached white walls of Stuart Marshall’s set, whose blue-sky backdrop will later transform into a cosmos of stars, it suggest a place somewhere between Andalucía and the Delta Quadrant.

Unwavering naturalism may not be essential to Friel’s play, which is not a strict historical drama, but when even the sweet smell in the air contains a more sinister meaning – the scent of potato blight – this production doesn’t seem alert to its cautions: “The first hot summer in 50 years and you think it’s Eden,” Owen chides Paul Woodson’s engagingly sincere Lieut Yolland.

These broad strokes may suggest an imagined paradise before the fall, but it drains the subtleties of how meaning and memory are being gradually eroded, as one vision of a nation replaces another. That is always a living issue but the clearest chimes between this production’s vision of Ireland and our own may be Barry Ward’s earnest Manus and Jade Yourell’s fetching Máire, each determined to leave a hopeless land for the promise of elsewhere. Even if the production’s emphasis is distractingly artificial – it performs the early comedy with face-front exaggeration and never allows a scene to escape without a reel on an accordion – the genius of the play can’t be totally obscured.

“A civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of . . . fact,” cautions Des McAleer’s Hugh, forever intoxicated with Latin and libations. It is still a shrewd observation, ignored too long by his son Owen and the sentimental grammar of Dunbar’s sheeny pastoralism.

Friel’s play delicately inscribes two languages that emerge at a time of great transition: one of wary adaptation, and the other of violent resistance. A muddled production will still convey his startling lesson, even if it seems to miss the meaning.
Until Saturday, then tours to Wales, Scotland and Grand Opera House, Belfast, April 23rd to 27th

Peter Crawley