Pros: Clever expression of language barriers plus a good balance of character development with political undertones.
Cons: A perplexing ending leaves many loose ends.
Translations, the work of Brian Friel, who is recognised as the pre-eminent living Irish dramatist, now completes its national tour at the Rose Theatre Kingston after opening in Sheffield this past February. The theatre is a modern building with a fantastic auditorium to facilitate the play, providing a large open space with very roomy seating.
Translations is set in the fictional town of Ballybeg, an Anglicisation of the Irish Baile Beag, which literally translates to ‘small town’. Many of Friel’s plays are set here, and through this setting, he explores important changes in Ireland during the 19th century. I usually wouldn’t be particularly keen on a politically heavy play, however I found this script, set in 1833, to cleverly and naturally incorporate the politics of the time into the lives of relatable characters.
Initially, the play focuses on an impoverished community of rural Irish locals. They are then reunited with Owen, a local who made his fortune in Dublin and returns to Ballybeg with two English soldiers: Captain Lancey (Paul Cawley) and Yolland (James Northcote). These two characters were brilliant; Lancey shows his disgust for his assigned location and his utter disregard for his surroundings, while Yolland is completely taken in by his romanticised view of Ireland. James Northcote was particularly strong as Yolland, expertly showcasing his development from fear of addressing the locals to love for the town and its characters. Nothcote’s Yolland was engrossing, and I felt like I was on his journey more than any other character in the play. Admittedly, this could be because he is most relatable to me, someone English who is completely enchanted by Irish culture and traditions.
Translations produces flawless acting; I found every character utterly believable. The only exception here being the sudden disappearance of Manus’s limp during the dance! There were a number of scenes where characters were drunk, with very subtle changes in behaviour cleverly revealing their inebriated state – there was also one not-so-subtle episode during which Yolland falls to the floor, spilling his drink and drenching the front row.
By far the best aspect of Translations for me was the way the languages were differentiated. It was always clear when characters were speaking Gaelic or English (both are communicated through English in the play), as well as more obvious Latin and Greek lines. One particularly tender scene occurs between Yolland and Máire (Beth Cooke): they confess their fascination and love for one another with no common language, excluding one English phrase “In Norfolk we besport ourselves around the maypole.” This sweet moment precedes the descent into the chaos that concludes the play.
The end was the only thing I disliked about Friel’s play; I felt like I’d left before it had finished. I know that this was the start of a significant historical period for Ireland, and no play within three hours could explain it thoroughly, but still I wanted to see the characters I’d grown so fond of have some conclusion.
Designer Lucy Osborne’s set is brilliant; the outside of a barn with real straw on the floor makes it feel incredibly authentic. I even found myself worrying about the performers’ feet on the rough floor as they ran about barefoot. Subtle changes in lighting also added to the authenticity. Sitting in the front row, I felt completely immersed, due at least in part to the fantastic set. The music between scenes and during the dancing was also effective in setting the scene. Traditional Irish folk was used, gradually becoming more ominous as the play progressed and the difficulties started to arise.
There is no doubt that Translations broaches some big political topics. Luckily, perplexing ending aside, it offers an accessible and enjoyable experience through the eyes of such lovable and well-acted characters.
Author: Brian Friel
Director: James Grieve
Producer: Rose Theatre/Sheffield Theatres/English Touring Theatre
Booking Until: 3rd May
Box Office: 08444 821 556
Booking Link: https://uk.patronbase.com/_RoseTheatreKingston/Productions/5094/Performances