12 Mar 2014
Mordant criticisms of the subtle, unseen but deeply felt effect of language come through in Irish playwright Brian Friel’s work, Translations, which recounts the early 19th century clash between the hegemony of the British army and rural Ireland’s rich linguistic traditions.
What at first appears to be an amiable play quickly darkens on the fast and deadly route from language to action. When the red-coated soldiers arrive in a Gaelic-speaking community to translate place names into the King’s English, a rude awakening awaits. English is about to be forced upon the community, their own rich tradition trampled and abandoned.
With wonderful and comic performances by the British Army officer Captain Lancey, Paul Cawley, and a touching and subtle farm girl played by Beth Cooke, Translations, showing at Cambridge Arts Theatre until 15 March comes from the playwright famous for his classic tragedy Dancing at Lughnasa, with which he stormed to international recognition when it was first produced in 1991. Friel has presented a new play every two years since his first success, Philadelphia, Here I Come, found its triumphant place on Broadway in 1964.
Translations is set in Donegal in 1833, when it is more or less an exclusively Gaelic-speaking community. Few people had English at all at the time and the only English speakers were a few affluent landlords. Even the learned schoolmaster, Hugh, whose command of Latin and Greek is second nature and who is clearly a man of great and profound learning, has a reluctant grasp of English which he rather despises as a ‘reductive language’.
A law which bans Catholics from teaching at all had left the schooling of the nation in the hands of foreigners, and the only access to anyone who spoke their native tongue was for children and adults to attend a Hedge School. It is at one such outdoor gathering at the height of summer we meet the cast of people who form the nexus of ‘Translations’. Hedge schools were, the director James Grieve says, ‘a kind of guerrilla education. Classes would take place behind a hedge with one of the pupils serving as a look-out. The minute they saw the authorities approaching, the school would pack up and move to a different location.’
At one of these arrives Captain Lancey, bedecked in his redcoat, tasked with the re-mapping of Ireland. He explains that he and his men will re-name the entire area and organise taxes accordingly. He speaks not a word of Irish and his patronising ignorance of the people’s intelligence shows brilliantly the misunderstanding that soon turns to tragedy. Maire falls suddenly in love with Yolland, a romantically sensitive British Army Lieutenant, and whimsically broods over the names of his home, Norwich, Little Walsingham, just as he finds the lyricism of her soon-to-be-altered countryside so wonderfully evocative. But before the end of the play the lieutenant mysteriously disappears and amiable Captain Lancey is threatening to evict every family, shoot every animal and level every house in the area.
Meanwhile, unaware of the darkness ahead, the schoolmaster, played consummately by Niall Buggy, yarns and drinks his way into entertaining oblivion. Cian Barry, who plays his son Owen, returned from business success in Dublin and now in the pay of the redcoats as a translator, makes the most dramatic shift in the play, moving from quisling to rebel as he realises the full import of what is about to happen to his community.
The sweet smell of decay is in their nostrils as the potato crop begins to rot, portending the disaster of the next decade when millions will die of hunger as the only food they are allowed to farm fails. And the dread of death extends to the mounting resentment from local men who now begin to see what appears a harmless translation exercise is the end of their world.