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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