‘I am a barbarian in this place because I am not understood by anyone’. This rendering of Ovid’s Latin work Tristia by Jimmy Jack in Act 3 drives to the heart of Brian Friel’s Translations, performed by the English Touring Theatre at the Northcott this month. Written and first performed in 1980, Friel described his play as ‘to do with language and only language’ and the piece raises important questions about linguistic difference and its effect on the ability to understand other people.
There is a certain irony in the English Touring Theatre taking on a play by one of Ireland’s most celebrated living playwrights as the relationship between Irish Gaelic and English bears down on the whole performance. Characters are divided between the Gaelic speakers of Baile Beag and the English soldiers who visit the town in an attempt to Anglicize Irish place names for the Ordnance Survey map.
Hauntingly however, the dialogue of both sides is spoken in English and it is therefore up to the actors to demonstrate the lack of comprehension between the Gaelic and English characters. This element of Translations is the hardest to pull off, as Friel demands a great self-referentiality to the theme of language in his play, but this production conveys the complexity well, using accents, dress, and small cultural nuances to delineate between the two nationalities. There were occasions where the ever-English speeches made the audience forget about the linguistic division, but this only seemed to produce rather moving moments of realisation since despite what language is heard in the play, the dramatic intention is that the characters misunderstand each other.
Particularly strong in this production were Roxanna Nic Liam as the mute Sarah, who gave an impressive performance, reflective of the linguistic barrier created for her character by Friel. James Northcote in the part of George Yolland was exceptional and captured the stuttering, naïve Englishman archetype extremely well, fumbling around and tripping over himself as he fell in love with the Gaelic language, landscape, and ladies.
The Northcott space was used effectively by the set design of the production, which featured a multi-level stone barn in the centre of the stage. Against the directions of Friel in the written play, most of the action occurred outside this structure, a choice that director James Grieve explains was because of the ‘high summer setting’ of the piece. This representation of the weather and the seasons became extremely poignant in the second act. The darkening of the stage reflected the action of the play as it became gloomier and gloomier.
One particularly good use of the barn model itself was during the dance scene, where the actors danced traditional Irish moves, through the door and into the structure which was lit up to reflect a buzz of action inside. As the characters Maire and George moved further away from the party, sound was used to reflect the faint echo of the loud music, which – though a small detail – was very effective.
The Latin and Greek extolled by the characters Jimmy and Hugh place Friel firmly in the Irish tradition of James Joyce and Frank McGuinness (whose 1988 play Carthaginians bears a direct relation to the final speech of Translations, as Hugh attempts to recall Virgil’s anticipation of the fall of Carthage in the Aeneid). Friel’s intriguing use of English, Gaelic, Latin and Greek in this play highlights the intricacies of language and the relationships it creates and destroys. The strong themes that Friel deploys so successfully in Translations ensures that – unlike Ovid’s lament – his wonderful play can be understood by everyone.
Translations is showing at the Northcott until Saturday 22 March. Click here to book tickets.bookmark me