Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

At the Sherman

Sherman Theatre- Translations , Sherman Theatre Cardiff , November 5, 2005
This review first appeared in the Western Mail..

It is a constant source of wonder to me that Brian Friel’s sensitive look at the issues of language and cultural imperialism in his marvellous play Translations has been so rarely done in Wales, where the debate is still so urgent.

I remember Theatre Wales tackling it not long after its premiere, in the 1980s, but it cries out for a contemporary Welsh production; meanwhile we have the accomplished touring version from England’s National Theatre selling out at The Sherman.

The setting for the play is the mapping by English sappers of rural Ireland in the 1830s and the action is set entirely in the house of the local headmaster of the “hedge school”, where locals could learn not only mathematics and geography but Greek and Latin – and, symbolically, in one case a dumb girl can learn to speak.

Ballybeg, the fictional village Friel evokes in several plays, represents Ireland and the one subject the hedge-school students do not study is English: only the teachers speak the language of their oppressors and much of the theme of the play, and indeed the comedy, revolves around the problems of translation – the dialogue is, of course, all in English but we have to work out when we have to assume the characters speak in Gaelic and when they speak in English.

Friel fans will know that his play, The Faith Healer, written the year before Translations, opens with a lyrical evocation of “dying Welsh villages”, that in turn nods to Under Milk Wood and Idris Davies, incanted by the husband and wife as both a ritual and the expression of a shared experience. Here the names of Irish places can also take on their own poetic meaning as the Englishman Yallop finds them the only way to express his love for Mair.

Yallop and Mair’s love affair is redolent with meaning, especially when we hear that the Englishman has disappeared, presumably kidnapped or murdered.

It is difficult to engage with the play without relating it to the Welsh situation, including Friel’s apparent acceptance that the Irish had to appropriate the language of the oppressor and make it their own – just as postcolonial nations around the world have done, and indeed as Welsh playwrights like Ian Rowlands and Ed Thomas have.

At the same time the act of imposing Anglicised translations of the traditional place-names is, of course, shown as an act of imperial power, as is the arrival of a National School which will use the English language – again we are reminded of a Welsh play, Emlyn Williams’s The Corn is Green, where a gifted scholar has to deny his language and culture to succeed (as Williams himself did).

Friel, while accepting the problems of the Irish-English relationship, seeks to avoid simple political polemics and, as in all his work, shows himself to be either more sophisticated or less ideological, depending on your viewpoint, and here Sean Holmes’s assured production for the NT lays out the arguments clearly.

Indeed, the show exhibits that smooth ness and professionalism for which the NT has become renowned – almost to the point of slickness. We may worry about some of the actors’ Donegal accents (Tony Rohr virtually loses it entirely by the end of the play) but the performances generally are excellent – including, it has to be said, Welsh College and Music and Drama graduate Jane Murphy, whom you may remember from The Laramie Project and The Rover.

And yet it left me at least wanting a bit more edge, with too many of the cast, like Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as the public-school soppy romantic Yolland and Billy Carter as the returned prodigal son Owen, offering classic “acting”, full-on performances that leave no room for ambiguity or character quirks. A new Welsh production might just give the play a gustiness and conviction that makes this play more than an intelligent, compassionate modern classic.

Reviewed by: David Adams

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