Impressively round characters with pigs under their arms
A play about the tension between an Irish village with a small school, and its English masters in 1833, Brian Friel’s Translations is the place to explore the meaning of cultural differences. But it has the potential for two flaws: political correctness, and comical stereotype. Kate O’Connor and Tim Kiely’s production manages admirably to avoid the former, but doesn’t quite steer clear of the latter.
The lack of understanding between the Gaelic-speaking villagers and the visiting English cartographers is marked by giving the villagers Irish accents. Unfortunately, this means that a large part of the cast speaks an unnatural accent, and the English and ‘bilingual’ characters have to play up their pronunciations as well. Thus the English sound like they have planks in their trousers, the Irish like they have pigs under their arms, and naturalism suffers.
Nevertheless, Translations does not fail to engage. It is an ambitious and well-executed project, staged in a sizable theatre, with impressive stage props and a cast of ten. Of these not all, but certainly most, act their parts convincingly. Many characters are often on stage simultaneously, and it is a joy to watch them all interact, even without a word. As a consequence they do get over the stereotypical flatness suggested by the accents. A very convincingly portrayed character is Doalty, a good-for-nothing schoolboy, who entertains better than his counterparts in the real world usually do. Schoolmaster Hugh’s performance is truly impressive. After Maire, an ambitious village girl, has held a monologue on why she wants to learn English rather than Greek or Latin, Hugh stares at her, tipsy and mortified. In silence, he pours himself a drink from his hipflask, downs it, and continues the lesson.
Translations, written in 1980, aimed to reflect upon contemporary as well as past Anglo-Irish troubles. It is a grim play still, but perhaps less politically so, and I think the directors have done well to focus on the play’s lively characters in any case. Translations is most convincingly about what is lost in translation. In a scene with great potential, the girl Maire flirts with the English lieutenant George Yolland, mediated by an interpreter. They say the same thing over and over to eachother in their respective languages. Notwithstanding the veil of culture shock,here we see the most profound translation problem of all: that between any one person and another.
Translations is at the Keble O’Reilly theatre until Saturday