Translations, written in 1980 by Brian Friel, is a play that fuses the power of language and communication against a backdrop of 1833 rural Ireland. Under James Grieve’s direction of the modern classic, the struggles of the fictitious town of Baile Beag are brought to life when two British soldiers arrive and announce their assignment of creating a new Ordnance Survey map of the area, the process of which demands the anglicisation of local Irish place names.
The tensions that arise in the process of translation are captured in the lives and interactions of the characters. The intelligent and often intoxicated hedge-school master Hugh (Niall Buggy) will lapse into the occasional bout of Latin (much to the audience’s entertainment) while the quiet, country girl Sarah (Roxanna Nic Liam) is a mute. The diversity of the characters is reflected by their unique means of communication, and the dynamic the performers create on stage together is fused with energy.
There are plenty of stand-out, powerful moments of this play; some hilarious, some heartfelt and incredibly moving. Altogether it was a captivating performance throughout.
Visually, the performance is faultless in its authenticity. Designer Lucy Osborne’s set seems to create its own pocket of rural Ireland before you, impressive in its apparent simplicity. In the same way, the costumes and even the Irish music at the beginning of the play are invaluable to the creation of this rural Ireland; a perfect marriage of visuals and imagination to bring it to life.
What drives this play, ultimately, is the story. Through the lives of the characters we see the extent to which culture and memory are ingrained in language. Each word of our language has an entire story behind it, an idea which is supported by the incorporation of Ancient Greek mythology (largely thanks to the character of Jimmy Jack – played by John Conroy – who is obsessed with the works of Homer and equally enamoured by beautiful mythological women).
Thanks to James Grieve’s brilliant direction the audience leaves questioning the true nature of language as the changes in characters’ lives echo bigger political shifts in the relationship between England and Ireland. Like the British as they anglicised the Irish place names: is it a form of restriction to keep a language as it is and protect it from change, or should language be a reflection of the ever-evolving world? In short, everything changes. Should we let it?
Translations is playing the Rose Theatre, Kingston until 3 May. For more information and tickets, see Rose Theatre’s website .