Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Theatre of Rich Humanity and Depth

In Memory

Brian Friel , Theatre in Wales , October 15, 2015
In Memory by Brian Friel The subtitle to Dominic Dromgoole's book “the Full Room” is “an A-Z of contemporary Playwriting”. Dromgoole writes sharp critical essays on sixty playwrights but when he comes to Brian Friel the page is almost blank. He writes “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence (Top man)” and that is it.

Richard Eyre ten years earlier wrote in his diary for 10th October 1990 “once again I thought that without the Irish the British theatre would be half-dead.” The occasion was “Dancing at Lughnasa”, the play that brought Friel to wide public recognition. It arrived from the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, won the Olivier Award for Best Play, the Tony Award in the USA for Best Play, and a Drama Desk award nomination for Outstanding Play. It was an explosive production with an indelible dance at its core. After the dance has passed the play, Eyre recorded, is “an elegiac, heart-breaking descent into loss and rural bleakness “.

Friel's oeuvre over the decades was large. “Translations” by any reckoning is at its peak. I was at its first London showing. David Adams was there for it at the Sherman in the winter of 2005 and saw its richness through a different lens. “It is difficult to engage with the play” he wrote “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...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).”

It was presented two years ago by Londonderry Millennium Forum Productions as part of Theatr Clwyd’s Celtic Festival. My own review read “Translations” is thirty-three years old and, on the evidence of director Adrian Dunbar’s production, looks set for the canon for the simplest of reasons; subject distinctiveness, subtlety of structure, emotional depth, metaphorical power. It has a historical setting, the year 1833, but avoids being Heritage Theatre, again for the simplest of reasons. The characters are caught up in a situation of complexity, in which they are themselves complicit. The play incorporates an element of cultural self-critique.”

“Translations” balances historical enquiry with human truths, passion’s illogicality, the perennial dream of emigration, the tussle between political action and inner refuge. “Confusion” says Hugh “is not an ignoble condition.”

2013 was a good year for Friel in Wales. Theatr Clwyd's production of “Aristocrats” was one of the best of its year. Winner of the New York Drama Critics Circle award for Best Foreign Play and the Evening Standard Best Play award it “is a large play not often revived and not easily undertaken. It is the kind of work for which Wales’ large classical company is intended.”

Dominic Dromgoole was indeed correct in his assessment.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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