This performance of Brian Friel’s 1980 play at Cambridge Arts Theatre kicks off a five-week tour for Translations by the English Touring Theatre after premiering at Sheffield Theatres in February. Set in 1833, a rural hedge-school in Ireland faces the arrival of the British Army, tasked with mapping the country and translating Irish place-names into English. What follows is a complex exploration of the possibilities and limitations of language, the tension between progression and protection of the past and relationships that cross cultural boundaries.
James Grieve and designer, Lucy Osborne, have moved the more intimate hedge-school setting outside and this change works well, allowing a greater sense of the characters learning not just their lessons, but also their very surroundings. The costumes, too, are extremely atmospheric with the pale, earthy palettes of the Irish contrasting against the sharp cuts and vivid red of the English. Owen and Yolland, in particular, use costume to make evident their troubled loyalties, whilst Jimmy Jack’s appearance resembling weathered stone immerses him in both his rustic surroundings and the ancient empires with which he is so enamoured. The entire production looks wonderful as characters move with natural flair and lively interaction, brilliantly exposing the stiffness of English cartographer, Captain Lancey, played with humour and increasing coldness by Paul Cawley.
Niall Buggy performs sensationally as Hugh, the hedge-school master. Playing a mixture of Father Ted’s Jack and a Prospero-esque magus, every sardonic comment and drunken prattle feels it should be followed by a knowing wink. His commanding speeches are full of crescendos and yet, at times, he gives way to a child-like fear that reveals a deeper understanding of his own predicament than he would care to reveal. There are other strong performances; Ciarán O’Brien’s transition in Manus from an easygoing and gentle teacher to an increasingly impotent and spurned figure is heartbreaking to watch. Cian Barry as his brother, Owen, is wonderfully adept at portraying torn allegiances whilst Hannah James-Scott and Rory Murphy form a delightfully playful double act as Bridget and Doalty.
The play is full of beautiful, subtle touches where dust motes fill the air after a book is snapped shut and maps are drawn in the earth. It is incredibly frustrating then that such delicacy is accompanied by overused sound effects in the background. In a play in which folk music, spontaneous guttural outbursts, and the dexterous intonations of human speech reach across language barriers and evoke the beauty of a land steeped in history and stories, there is simply no need for Disney-like bird chirps and monotonous downpours of rain. The effect is jarring and exasperating in a play in which simply sounding the place names ‘Lis na nGall…Carraig an Phoill’ induces great wonder for characters such as Yolland, Máire and Owen. The rising of drums in a delicate love scene between Yolland and Máire, reminiscent of a tribal dance, would have been far more effective if the production didn’t rely so heavily on artificial sounds for much of its middle.
Grieve’s production of Friel’s eloquent play could have been more raw and taken greater risks in pointing more fixedly towards one of the play’s many issues. However, the visual and kinetic aspects of the play are impressive and the acting is excellent throughout, especially from Niall Buggy. The best scenes are those in which language barriers take precedence and characters gesticulate wildly and humorously, evincing relationships and loyalty that can transcend words.