Mrs Chrisparkle and I had invited our friends Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters for a day’s immersion in the works of Brian Friel, courtesy of the Sheffield Theatres. We found ourselves licking our post Wonderful Tennessee wounds with a pre-theatre meal at Café Rouge. “This one should be much better” I ventured. “Translations is the play that really made his name”. They looked at me as if to say “we trusted you for the matinee. Why should we trust you for the evening?” But I was right. Translations is like the Eiffel Tower lit up on New Year’s Eve, in comparison to Wonderful Tennessee’s out-of-order Belisha Beacon. It was first produced by Friel’s own Field Day theatre company in 1980 with a cast including such worthies as Stephen Rea, Ray McAnally and Liam Neeson and is considered to be a modern classic.
We’re still in Friel’s fictional Ballybeg in County Donegal, and it’s 1833. We are introduced to a hedge-school where a cross-section of the locals come to improve their education; from the barely-able-to-speak Sarah to the Latin- and Greek-scholar Jimmy Jack, both young and old are welcome provided they pay their fees. Hugh, the teacher, is a pompous drunken Stentor who treats his lame son and assistant Manus like a skivvy; and Manus is in love with milkmaid Maire, although she is disappointed by his lack of ambition and assertiveness. Into this mix come representatives of the British Army in the form of Captain Lancey and Lieutenant Yolland who are to re-map the area and to anglicise the Gaelic place names at the same time – for consistency, you understand, of course. Yolland finds himself attracted to Maire, and from then on you sense it’s not going to end well.
But the great trick in this play is in the language. Most of the Irish don’t speak English and none of the English speak Gaelic. The whole text of the play is in English though – apart from the Latin and Greek quotations – so you have the situation where, for example, Yolland is fumbling through his tentative words of love to Maire and she is saying similar things back to him but neither of them are understanding each other – because they’re speaking different languages – although we the audience understand them fully. It’s a superb comic device but also emphasises the various difficulties there are with communication in general.
The language also becomes symbolic of power in the struggle between Irish independence and the British presence. Friel makes it clear that anglicising the old names is a form of violation, even though, ironically, it’s being carried out by the mildest and most romantic innocent in the form of Yolland. He is being assisted by Manus’ brother Owen, six years in Dublin and now a man about town, who becomes a kind of quisling figure. As further evidence of miscommunication between the two camps, Yolland constantly thinks Owen is called Roland – a name similar in spelling to his own; maybe this is symbolic of the British moulding the Irish into a replica of themselves (or maybe I’m reading too much into it). And there’s also a chilling lesson in army tactics, shown by the very polite way in which the British first start their work but then, when they perceive threat, as in the fate (whatever it is) that befalls Yolland, they become clinically aggressive and ruthless.
This is a super, lucid, simple production that allows Friel’s words and characters to flourish. Lucy Osborne has designed a useful clear space to allow for the maximum interaction between the characters which is the best way to use the wonderful Crucible stage – when it’s littered with furniture and scenery something of the magic can be lost in that theatre. The back wall just provides a door to the barn and upstairs leads to the living quarters, but that’s all hidden; all we see are the steps that Manus has to slowly and delicately negotiate every time he is at his father’s beck and call.
At the heart of the production is the very tender and gentle burgeoning relationship between Yolland and Maire. James Northcote is fantastic as Yolland, a well brought-up starry eyed young romantic, not only about Maire but about Ireland itself. Caught up in his own dilemma of having to do what the army requires but thoroughly disapproving of it, he reminded me of a young Nigel Havers, all clean-cut and noblesse oblige. There’s a wonderful scene where he tries to join in with some Irish dancing, occasionally getting it right but largely as confused as any Englishman would be trying to follow those steps. Beth Cooke’s Maire is a strong character who knows her own mind and is very no-nonsense with the under-achieving Manus (a delicately drawn performance by Ciarán O’Brien) but who reverts back to simple girlishness when confronted with what she considers to be the magical sound of Yolland’s voice. The two actors work together really well to create this brief but emotional moment of romance.
There’s also a fantastically quirky but never over-the-top performance by stalwart Niall Buggy as Hugh, the bellowing Magister. Of course the role is beautifully written by Friel, but Mr Buggy absolutely convinces you he is the epitome of classical schoolmaster from top to toe. I wonder if he ever met my old Latin master Mr Edge? He absolutely encapsulated everything about Mr Edge that I can remember, even his dismissive “too slow” whenever you were struggling to work out the right answer. In many respects Hugh ought to be some kind of bullying monster but actually you really feel quite a lot of affection for him. We also really enjoyed John Conroy as Jimmy Jack, beavering away with his Virgil or Homer, living a life devoted to dead languages but whose stories are as real to him as life itself; acclaimed as the Infant Prodigy in his youth but with nowhere to take that learning other than to carry on being the Infant Prodigy throughout the rest of his life.
Paul Cawley’s Captain Lancey is a figure of fun at first, with his faulting speech to the locals, talking to them as though they were idiot children, and then with his complex words translated by Owen in a very dismissive, abbreviated style. When he reappears at the end of the play he is on the warpath with his cold threats to obliterate the neighbourhood if the locals do not comply with his wishes. It’s a very chilling volte-face, and very effectively performed. Cian Barry is a smart and sophisticated Owen, enjoying his near-complicitous friendships with the English as evidence that he has “made it”. Hannah James-Scott and Rory Murphy give great support as the Friel equivalent of rude mechanicals Bridget and Doalty; and Roxanna Nic Liam is a touching, timid wallflower of a Sarah, who could have blossomed under Manus’ tuition but will doubtless revert to a life of silence.
A beautifully crafted play, given a top quality Sheffield treatment under James Grieve’s direction. It’s a moving look at a fascinating time in Ireland’s history, but what makes it special is that Friel has invested the story with some memorable characters and that it’s not just some dry and dusty old historical re-enactment. With its lightness of touch and its linguistic trickery, no wonder this play made his reputation. We were only grateful that we’d decided to see this in the evening and Wonderful Tennessee in the afternoon – the other way round would have been a serious downer.