Translations at The Abbey Theatre
October 24, 2013
There is a moment towards the end of Conall Morrison’s flawless production of Brian Friel’s Translations, which shows just how perfectly he has fulfilled his brief. Stumbling around drunk Denis Conway’s schoolmaster Hugh and Donal O Kelly’s erudite yet uncouth Jimmy Jack trade tales of loss and loneliness. The latter goes to sit on the stool, misses and ends up pulling it down on top of himself. What would usually be met with great gales of laughter is instead met with a rigid, breathless silence. In a play about language it is in it’s silences that meaning takes hold and the honesty in which each character is portrayed here by the universally excellent cast insures that the complexities and hidden depths of each role is not lost on the audience.
Set in 1830s Ballybeg, the fictional town where most of Friel’s work is located, it follows the reaction of a family who run, and the students who attend, a local hedge school to the arrival of the sappers, a team of English soldiers who are working for the ordinance survey. With them is the schoolmaster’s prodigal son, Owen (Ward), the black sheep returned to preach the word of the Lords. Devising English names for Irish towns as they go along, “a form of eviction”, is further complicated by the blossoming, if linguistically challenged, feelings between Yolland (Delap) a young soldier and Maire (an exceptional Aoife McMahon) a local woman, whose own ties to Ballybeg have been eroded by her planned emigration following her failed attempt to make Manus (Monaghan), the hedge school master’s son, embrace the new ways.
It is first and foremost a play about language. Language as a weapon (for the defensive Manus), as a barrier (for the emigrating Maire), an obstacle (to the colonising English) and as a source of great joy (for Hugh and Jimmy Jack). It explores its forms and charges, its beginnings and its transitions while celebrating its sounds. But it is also very much a play about belonging. About finding a place for oneself in the world and a meaning for ones existence. Written at the height of the troubles, set just prior to the famine and staged as the issue of Irish sovereignty is once again questioned, there was, and is, plenty of resonance in the piece. But Morrison doesn’t force it, choosing instead to work on character and pace so that Friel’s ideas come about naturally and linger long after the applause has died down instead of overpowering the human drama as it unveils. For the summer show in the Abbey, greater heed needs to be shown to commercial concerns. Yet while Morrison has his cast perform at full force he insures they pull it back when required. Yes it is very Irish, very funny and it’s not afraid of being twee when it needs to be. But Conor Linehan’s evocative sound design and compositions, Joan O’Clery’s delightful costumes and Ben Ormerod’s lights, which yield to the pulse of the piece are met by balanced turns from a cast who hit the duality within their parts so that they can be both tragic and comic (O Kelly), silly and strong (Nolan and Moran as Doalty and Bridget), amiable yet irksome( Delap) and stubborn yet well
meaning (Monaghan). Never is one played more than the other.
This is a magnificent play and a magnificent production where you’ll struggle to shush the voices in your head as they marvel at the brilliance of the piece and it’s perfect realization by cast and crew.