Translations King’s Theatre

Brian Friel’s play is set in the fictional Irish village of Ballybeg in 1833 but the themes it covers are as relevant today as when it was first performed in 1980 in Derry at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. There are references to real events in Irish history and portents of things to come such as the Great Famine and mass emigration, rebellion and resistance. However, the play is not just a treatise on Irish history, it is a play which will move you, make you laugh out loud sometimes and get you thinking on its universal messages about communication and understanding.

The story revolves around the return of Owen to his home village after an absence of six years in Dublin. He arrives with members of the British Army which employs him as a translator and go between for the British and the Irish as the Army work on an Ordnance Survey map of Ireland. In particular he brings with him Lieutenant Yolland, an English officer who, in trying to become part of the community, unwittingly becomes the catalyst for changing it terribly.

Owen at first represents the move for “progress” and wholeheartedly throws himself into the task of changing ancient Irish place names to standardised English replacements. His brother Manus berates him for his betrayal of his Irish heritage and his father, the local schoolmaster, is too deep in his love of his beloved classics and the local poteen to take up either extreme. Yolland is captivated by Ireland and by its people and its language and unfortunately also with Maire, Manus’s intended.

Communication, or miscommunication, throughout the play is a key theme. The locals can’t speak English and the English can’t speak Gaelic. Manus can speak English but won’t. Yolland wants to speak Gaelic but can’t. The father speaks Latin and Greek which neither the locals nor the English can. Sarah, who is deaf and dumb, communicates with sign language and cannot be understood by her fellow Irish. Yolland and Maire can’t understand each other’s language but understand each other perfectly. We understand that the Irish characters are supposed to be speaking Gaelic on stage although in reality they are speaking in English and this gives rise to some comic as well as tragic scenes where the inability to communicate and understand each other causes chaos and confusion. Ultimately, there is a realisation of the importance of language in nurturing the spirit of a people and its culture and how it separates or binds us to others.

The set is simple, with a huge backdrop of sky and effective use of lighting creating the atmosphere of a hot summer’s day to the starry sky of the evening scene of the dance. The play is directed by acclaimed actor and director Adrian Dunbar and the actors are impeccable, particularly Des McAleer as Hugh.

Overall, this is well worth a visit.

Irene Brownlee