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Heather Neill previews a new production of Brian Friel's play on language and identity

Translations By Brian Friel National Theatre tour until December 1: Mold, Liverpool, Hull, Huddersfield, Cardiff, Brecon, Southampton, National Theatre. Tour details at www.nationaltheatre.org.uk?lid=13919

Brian Friel's play Translations deals with the importance of language as an integral part of culture. Hugh is an old drunk but, with his son Manus, runs a "hedge school", an informal gathering of people of all ages who pay a little for education, in mid-19th century rural Donegal.

The common language is Gaelic, but Hugh and old Jimmy Jack are also fluent in Latin and Greek. Captain Lancey and Lieutenant Yolland arrive with a remit to draw up maps of the area, substituting English names for Irish.

Hugh's other son, Owen, who has been away for six years, is helping them.

Director Sean Holmes says that the play "takes a while to become a tragedy.

Also, we know that the Famine happened and that everyone would speak English in future and that gives it a tragic dimension."

He thinks modern audiences should also be aware of the tensions there must have been when, in the original production in Londonderry in 1980, an Irish girl, Maire, kisses an English soldier. If there are echoes of earlier Irish dramatists, especially O'Casey, Holmes says that "in the last act it turns into a Greek play, with people discussing what is happening offstage".

The love scene in act two is very funny because Maire and Yolland do not have a common language. Holmes says, "When they realise they can't understand each other, they say what's in their hearts and then, in a sense, they do truly understand".

Friel is writing in English, but cleverly makes plain the culture clash.

Owen, translating for the stiff, bureaucratic Lancey, amusingly takes considerable liberties. Owen's position changes. In the final act, Yolland is missing, presumed murdered, and Lancey is threatening to kill livestock and level dwellings.

Holmes says: "There is an opaque quality about the last act and the audience's experience comes through Owen's. Up until then, he has known everything, worried about nothing; now he doesn't know where he's from. He realises that what he has done is usher in an occupier, not a force for modernity."

The theme of the play, dealing with what Holmes calls "issues of identity", is again starkly relevant. But he also says: "The play is more than that; it is about the difficulty of communicating whether one has no shared language or three, like Hugh and Jimmy."

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