The Oxford Playhouse was a-buzz on a Tuesday evening: obviously there were great expectations for English Touring Theatre’s production of Brian Friel’s Translations.
Translations is set in Ireland in 1833 and is played around a hedge school, so-called apparently because classes took place behind a hedge so that students and master could disappear when the authorities turned up. A guerrilla education indeed! This is a play of contrasts, the first of which is the poverty of the surroundings compared with the schooling: these students can recite and translate Virgil, Ovid and other Greek and Latin writers. Moreover their ‘master’ Hugh, when he appears (a magnificent Niall Buggy), is normally drunk, which does not stop him from declaiming in a variety of languages at the top of his voice.
The play begins in a largely comic vein and the return of the long-absent son Owen is a joyous occasion. It is Owen, however, who introduces the two English soldiers and this ultimately leads to tragedy. The play seems to be apolitical at first, but the reality of politics becomes more and more apparent and more and more threatening.
The title refers to the translations between Irish and English, with Owen being the main translator. At the beginning he simplifies and sanitises what the ridiculous Captain Lancey is saying, although it is clear that the map-making is about control and subjugation. The more sensitive English soldier Yolland, however, falls in love with the country, the language and inevitably one of the local girls. As Owen gets enthusiastic about changing the Irish names into good English translations, Yolland wants to keep, and learn, the old Irish names; the stories behind the names will get lost if the name is changed. At the end, though, Owen has to translate Lancey’s brutal punishments and he turns away from English.
And yet, and yet – Hugh, for all his Irishness, says that languages disappear if ‘their linguistic contours ... no longer match the landscape of fact.’ And yet, and yet – Yolland and his Irish girl cannot understand each other but what they are saying in their own languages is in perfect harmony. Language is no barrier to them. Although the Irish brogue takes a bit of getting used to, the acting is uniformly excellent and the characters believable.
This is not a play about answers, it is a play about questions: in the end, we must all decide what happens to the characters in this play, what happens to languages, how we should make our way in this confused and confusing world.