Translations

Critics' choice
© Mark Dout
Beth Cooke as Máire and John Conroy as Jimmy Jack

English soldier and Irish farm girl circle one another, eyes locked, utterly in love. Neither speaks the other’s language, bar the odd ill-fitting proverb or proper noun, but feelings force them to try and, together, they feel their way to the first shoots of mutual understanding and a picture-perfect kiss. With time, it might just work.

Such is the genius of Brian Friel’s masterly 1980 three-acter that it lets you glimpse a bright future then dismantles any such possibility. It’s 1833 in Ballybeg, rural Ireland, and a two-man English expeditionary force is mapping the area and translating the names of local landmarks into English. They speak no Irish; the locals, no English. Self-serving Owen translates, downplaying both imperial intentions and native antagonism in the process.

Friel presents both languages in English, allowing us to see both sides of the frequent misunderstandings – something simultaneously comic and poignant. You realise translation can never be like-for-like, as place names, steeped in local folklore, get flattened in transliteration and the English steam-roller an ancient, though arguably stuck-in-the-mud, culture. Language is just the first landgrab here.

It’s a play ripe with feeling – unrequited loves, dreams of better lives and political resentment – and rich in characters, all of which James Grieve’s English Touring Theatre production makes appear effortless. On Lucy Osborne’s eloquent set – a broken banister and a bricked-up window suggest a backwards, blinkered Ireland – Grieve shifts the initial idyll to overcast gloom with a real deft touch and his cast are, without exception, superb.

Even so, stand-out turns from James Northcote as a sighing Hibernophile soldier, Paul Cawley as his bumptious superior, Niall Buggy’s sozzled hedge-schoolteacher and Beth Cooke and Ciarán O’Brien as brittle youngsters Maire and Manus make this revival close to unmissable.

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