Brian Friel is a major Irish playwright and Translations is considered to be one of his greatest works. Newly formed South Australian actors' theatre Flying Penguin Productions chose this play as their first production and performed it in Adelaide last year to some acclaim. Now, with the support of Malthouse Theatre, they have brought their production to Melbourne.
Translations is traditional in its structure and complex in its themes. It is set in Baile Beg (Ballybeg) in County Donegal. The time is 1833 when Hedge schools proliferated in secret opposition to the English government schools which refused to allow Catholics any sort of teaching role. The Hedge schools were staffed by Gaelic brehons, storytellers and musicians who taught Irish history and tradition. Some even included classical training in Ovid and Virgil to a higher standard than the state sponsored schools.
Hugh (Andrew Martin) is one such Hedgemaster, educated in the classics as well as Irish history and tradition he is however more than a little unreliable, easily distracted by Jimmy (Patrick Frost) who has a great love for the grog. In his absence his crippled son Manus (Rory Walker) keeps the classes running, encouraging the helplessly shy and virtually mute Sarah (Michaela Cantwell) to have the courage to mouth a few words and dreaming of a future with Maire (Elena Carapetis) a wilful beauty who is already planning to leave for the United States if Manus fails to secure a living for them both. Their world is shattered by the arrival of the elder son Owen (William Allert), now wealthy and returning in the pay of the British to help in the mapping of the countryside.
The British officers are clearly at a disadvantage and struggling to understand, let alone communicate with these 'foreign' people. The junior officer is 'in love' with the charms of Ireland and in particular the charms of Maire. There is an amusing and quite poignant scene where they try desperately to express their feelings across the language divide, resorting to Gaelic, English and Latin, with limited success. Owen is caught between the two worlds as translator (not always reliable) and assistant to Yolland (Stephen Sheehan) helping him adapt the traditional place names to more acceptable and comprehensible Anglicized versions. Ironically it is Owen who is the more enthusiastic of the two until it finally dawns on him what might be lost in the process.
Language and its role in culture and identity is central to this work and it is explored in all its complexity. Do we need to hang on to the language of the past in order to be ourselves? Or, do we need to learn the language of the present, in this case English, in order to survive?
The distinctions between the languages is well handled. No one speaks Gaelic but the performances make clear, without any sense of artificiality, that different languages are being spoken. There are some good performances, for example Andrew Martin's Hugh and Michaela Cantwell's Sarah. However some of the others felt a little inconsistent and even tended towards the stereotypical. I'm not sure where the fault lay, whether with the writing or the interpretation.
The set worked well to create the sense of a hidden space, maybe a cellar, or a barn, with its camouflage coloured walls covered in words and the music of ARIA award winning group The Audreys is used to good effect.
Translations is a play for all those who love language and are fascinated by its role in identity, by the ways in which it can be used to both survive and to conquer, and of how it is so much more than the words. And it offers a wonderful insight into the Irish experience.
Malthouse Theatre presents Flying Penguin's production of
By Brian Friel
Venue: Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse
Season Details: November 29 – December 10 2006
Preview: Wednesday 29 November 7.30pm
Opening: Thursday 30 November 7.30pm
Times: Tuesday 5 December 8pm, Wednesday – Saturday 7.30pm, Sunday 5pm. Matinees – Thursday 7 December 1.00pm, Saturday 2 & 9 December 1.00pm
Tickets: $15 - $45 + booking fee
Bookings: Malthouse Box Office 9685 5111 | www.malthousetheatre.com.au
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