Lost for the right word;Theatre;Set Plays

1st May 1998 at 01:00
TRANSLATIONS. By Brian Friel. New Victoria Theatre, North Staffordshire

Brian Friel's Translations is set in an Irish-speaking Donegal hedge-school in 1833 when the British army arrives to remap the area, restyling Gaelic place names in English.

Director Roxana Silbert brings her own experience to this subject; a native Spanish speaker she arrived in England aged six and began learning English. "The relation of language and identity is very personal for me. Friel's central idea, that the English being spoken on stage represents both English and Gaelic at different times for the characters (sections of the play depend on most of the locals and the two British soldiers only being able to communicate through a tactfully inaccurate translator), is so obvious it's amazing nobody had done it before."

She's determined to respect Friel's clear-sighted handling of the situation. "It's not a matter of right or wrong. Here's this little school in the middle of nowhere, with pupils fluent in Greek and Latin and seeing English as a gross, vulgar tongue. Yet 20 years later Gaelic no longer existed there."

Yet the hedge-school teachers are not simple folk heroes. "Hugh, the master, does not teach well; he's demanding, aggressive, domineering and has squashed his son Manus's capacity to teach. People do not learn much; the place is ripe for taking over."

Of the soldiers, one, Captain Lancey, is indeed "the archetypal English mid-range officer, a little bureaucrat who takes orders from above." But the other, Lieutenant Yolland, who in a Romeo and Juliet side to the plot falls in love with a young local woman, Maire, and ends up presumably killed by the unseen but sinister sounding Donnelly twins, is "open, romantic, warm," while Maire herself is "stubborn and not necessarily very likeable".

"The issues do not control the characters. And the question at the heart of the play is: If you lose your language what else do you lose?" Silbert mentions for example that often a new language has no precise word to express a feeling or sensation which another language can articulate. When the expression is denied, what happens to the feeling? So "the play relates to the EnglishIrish situation but also to anyone with a different racial or cultural background from the society they live in. Language is central to people's experiences."

It is unsurprising that stories - about subjects such as how places got their names - are important in the play. An example is Tobair Vree, a crossroads named from a corrupted form of words meaning "Brian's well". Yet the well was not at the crossroads and has anyway long dried up. So what is the responsibility for keeping the etymology in a renaming? "Friel puts into question the whole folklore and mythic life that's part of Irish culture. It can be flawed and a lot of characters do not face reality. They hide in folklore and this allows their community to be taken over."

May 7-30. Tickets: 01782 717962

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