“What the hell, it’s only a name. It’s the same isn’t it. Well, isn’t it?”
In something of an anniversary year for them, English Touring Theatre are having themselves quite the 21st birthday. Howard Brenton’s Eternal Love has been revived to great effect, Blanche McIntyre’s take on Noël Coward looks set to be an exciting highlight of the summer and their production of Brian Friel’s Translations, co-produced with the Rose Kingston and Sheffield Theatres, turned out to be an absolute cracker in a month that has already seen a lot of great theatre that is sure to figure heavily on all our year-end lists.
Set in 1833 in a Gaelic-speaking hedge school in Donegal, the lives of those in this quiet rural teaching establishment are set for massive upheaval with the arrival of a British Army platoon who have the job of redrawing territorial boundaries and translating all of the local Gaelic place names into English. Ageing school master Hugh’s two sons embody the conflict – the one having stayed on to become an apprentice at the school, the other becoming an interpreter in Dublin and only returning to turn his home from Baile Beag to Ballybeg.
But rather than simply damn an act of cultural terrorism, Friel explores a much more nuanced take on the language of colonialism, how progress affects minority tongues and the rather sweet idea that perhaps love can transcend any linguistic barriers. This last he demonstrates most beautifully in a love story between one of the young British lieutenants and a village girl who, unable to converse regularly, find their own way of communicating in the play’s most glorious scene, played here to perfection by James Northcote and Beth Cooke with a stunning sense of movement.
James Grieve’s production gets most things right actually. The casting is great across the board – Niall Buggy as the passionate yet pragmatic Hugh is a real stand-out along with Ciarán O’Brien as the embittered son who has stayed behind, Roxana Nic Liam’s mute Sarah, I could justifiably name them all – and the clarity that Grieve affords us in realising the full tragicomic potential of this play makes it a must-see no matter what language you speak.