Millennium Forum Productions presents Brian Friel's 'Translations'. Photo: Helen Murray

Millennium Forum Productions presents Brian Friel's 'Translations'. Photo: Helen Murray

Millennium Forum Productions presents Brian Friel's 'Translations'. Photo: Helen Murray

Millennium Forum Productions presents Brian Friel's 'Translations'. Photo: Helen Murray

Millennium Forum Productions presents Brian Friel's 'Translations'. Photo: Helen Murray

Millennium Forum Productions presents Brian Friel's 'Translations'. Photo: Helen Murray

Brian Friel’s Translations is set in nineteenth-century Ireland. The action takes place in an Irish speaking hedge-school in Ballybeg, Co. Donegal – where English speaking soldiers have arrived, tasked with rewriting the map of Ireland, Anglicising the place-names as they go. The play raises questions about language and national identity that were relevant during its first production by Field Day Theatre Company in Derry~Londonderry in 1980 and remain pertinent in 2013, as the unresolved themes of culture, language and place still shape our society. Alot has changed in Ireland since the eighties; however, this Millennium Forum production hasn't kept pace with developments in Irish theatre since this innovative play was first staged.

Central to the play is an odd theatrical device: the whole play is presented in English, however the audience are meant to believe the Irish villagers are speaking Irish, and the British visitors speaking English – with little understanding between them. More sharply than anything else in the play this underscores the extent to which British colonialism has shaped language in Ireland, even up to the present day – given that a genuinely bilingual play would sadly be met with confusion from the majority of contemporary Irish audiences.

Photo: Helen MurrayStuart Marshall’s minimal set, with its projected blue-sky backdrop and silhouettes of two windswept trees proved a fitting design to begin the play. The staging however does not change for the duration of the piece, and, whilst effective for dim and dark lit scenes, the more brightly-lit scenes reveal the acrylic black texture of the trees quite strongly, removing the illusion of the onstage Donegal village and unwittingly bringing the audience back to the real-world theatre. Helen Quigley’s successful costume design appeared to be searching for an authentic nineteenth-century look, yet surprisingly made the Irish villagers seem quite stylish with their interesting mix of browns for the men and reds for the women. The only use of sound during the piece was the actor’s voices and a prosaic accordion that covered scene transitions throughout the three-acts, which, whilst it left the sound-world feeling a little under-explored, neatly complemented the stark set and often elegiac script.

The play’s main problem however stemmed from the varied quality of performances from its large cast. Hugh (Des McAleer) and Jimmy Jack (Niall Cusack) were the veterans of the piece, and clearly demonstrated their acting experience in the roles of two erudite Irishmen, fuelled throughout by drink and a love of Greek and Latin languages. Paul Woodson as Yolland however was the stand-out performance; his onstage presence as the English soldier who falls in love with Ireland was exceptionally engaging, drawing the audience completely into his naïve and often ecstatic fancies. Dermott Hickson’s performance as Owen also held its own, yet the rest of the cast seemed to struggle with stage presence and smaller details such as accents. Doalty’s (Conan Sweeny) overly physical performance was energetic, but sadly felt it belonged more to a Grotowski-style performance than a Friel play. Manus’ (Barry John Ward) inconsistent limp and Marie’s (Jade Yourell) struggle to project (bordering on shouting) unfortunately detracted from the well-written script and the visceral experience of live theatre.

Adrian Dunbar’s directing was also surprisingly safe, especially given recent praise for his staging of Friel’s Performances (also in Derry~Londonderry, at the Great Hall Magee), and the possibilities opened up for the Irish stage since Translations was first presented at the Guildhall in the same city, 33 years ago.

Photo: Helen MurrayThe rhythm and pace of the piece picked up in the third act, but it was by then too late to change the overall feel of the performance. Stage space and actor direction felt under-utilised, with the vast majority of action taking place on one level, centre stage, occasionally shifting left and right. Cliché also sometimes seemed to play more part in the direction than subtlety; for instance, Yolland and Maria’s romantic interaction felt more suited to the dramatic intensity of musical theatre than the understated performance this play seems to yearn for.

“To remember everything is a form of madness” reflects Hugh in his final moments on stage. As the theatre-goer watches these final moments I wonder what of this production will be memorable for them? The final image as the lights fades down was that of the actors clumsily walking offstage, having already abandoned character, leaving an awkward gulf between the final scene and the bows, filled by the tentative clapping of the audience.

Chris McAlinden is a filmmaker and Facilitator based in Derry/Londonderry. He holds a First Class BA (Hons) degree in Drama and a Masters degree in Film.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Translations by Brian Friel

13 March – 27 April 2013 (on tour)

Produced by Millennium Forum Productions
In Millennium Forum

Directed by Adrian Dunbar

Lighting Design: Conleth White

Set Design: Stuart Marshall

Costume Design: Helen Quigley

With: Des McAleer, Conan Sweeny, Niall Cusack, Jade Yourell, Dermott Hickson, Genevieve Louise Barr, Paul Woodson, Nick Tizzard, Muireann Bird, Barry John Ward.


Spring 2013 Tour:

Cork Opera House, Cork - 20-23 March
Gaiety Theatre, Dublin - 25-30 March
Clwyd Theatre, Cymru - 9-13 April
Kings Theatre, Edinburgh - 15-20 April
Grand Opera House, Belfast - 23-27 April