I went along to see Brian Friel’s Translations last night. It was being staged in the women’s prison of Kilmainham Gaol by the newly-formed Ouroboros theatre company. Quite apart from the setting, this play is riven with current and past conflict about language, culture and place and is fantastic. The actors, currently touring the island by the way, are connected with this play in a way that I have rarely seen. They are entirely convincing in their characters and their passion for the material is evident.
This is a politically-charged play, first performed in Derry in 1980, about 10 years after the start of that really shitty time in Irish history, euphemistically called The Troubles. The play portrays some inhabitants of a small town in rural Donegal in the early 1830s and their interaction with the newly-arrived British Army sappers, there to produce 6 inch to 1 mile maps of the country. While the play is written in English, the main characters are speaking Irish and the two Engliah characters speak English. At certain stages of the play this causes utter confusion for the audience when a local man made good in Dublin, Owen, acts as translator between locals and the sappers. What is notable though is the ability of Owen to convey the precise, rule-bound and exacting language of the army sappers to the locals for whom language embellishment is all important. Tobar Bhri, the local crossroads, is derived from Brian’s well, a place where Brian drowned himself in an attempt to cure his facial disfigurement in the 1680s figures larger in the third act. Now that I write, physical disability is prominent as a theme.
We have lost a lot of richness in ourselves by the letting go of Irish and a lot of the heritage derived from the interlinking of histroy, place and language. But, as we are reminded across the play, Irish people chose to use English more and more on an everyday basis through the 19th century. This is evident from the characters of Maire (she wantsd to learn English to emigrate), Owen (for commercial reasons) and by Maire telling us that Daniel O’Connell asks us to start using English as the only way for us to be modern.
Catch it if you can. It has gone from the Gaol building, with all of its historical resonances, and is in Kilkenny for the festival next week. The acoustics are poor in the Gaol but the setting is just great.