Friel’s political story talks the language of life

Beth Cooke and John Conroy  in  Translations, Crucible Theatre, Feb 13 to March 8 2014.
Beth Cooke and John Conroy in Translations, Crucible Theatre, Feb 13 to March 8 2014.

Of the three plays in Sheffield Theatres’ Brian Friel season Translations (at the Crucible) is the best known having had several notable productions in Ireland, Britain and the USA since its premiere in 1980 and it is now a set text.

It takes place in 1833 in Donegal in the rural community of Baile Beag (Friel’s frequent fictional location which translates as small town) when the British army arrive to map the surrounding area and anglicise all the place names.

Friel has said that Translations is “a play about language and only about language”. But that by extension makes it about Irish history and therefore politics. Characters argue about whether learning the English language is to submit to colonisation or to open up the world. On the one side is schoolmaster’s son Manus and on the other milkmaid Maire who wants to go to America. That seems to suggest any future together would be doomed even before her head is turned by friendly English officer Yolland.

One of the conceits of the play is that most of the characters we hear in English are supposedly speaking Gaelic which is a little confusing at first. It eventually pays off with a beautiful scene in which we are privy to both sides of the conversation as Yolland and Maire try to express their feelings for each other.

James Northcote’s bumbling but game attempt to join in the ceilidh captures the essence of the nice but dim Yolland in contrast to the smart and spirited Maire played by Beth Cooke (unmistakably a member of the Cusack clan).

There may be an air of WC Fields in Niall Buggy’s loquacious inebriate Hugh but he brings out the poetry in him, along with John Conroy’s sadly unfulfilled Jimmy Jack who can quote Greek mythology..

Friel shows his Irish peasants have a thirst for education by attending the self-funded hedge schools They cannot speak English but are fed Greek and Latin. “We feel closer to the Mediterranean; we tend to overlook your island,” Hugh informs the English redcoat captain dismissively..

In James Grieve’s production, Cian Barry is a strong presence as Owen, the brother who has a foot in both camps and is arguably the voice of reason, though limping younger brother (Ciaran O’Brien ) would fiercely disagree.

Friel gives us a somewhat muted ending with questions unanswered, about the mysterious Donnelly twins whom we never see, about the fate of the missing Yolland and what precisely is the tongue-tied Sarah so guilty about.

But we are in no doubt things are going to get a lot worse for this community.