Poetry in any tongue

18th April 1997 at 01:00
TRANSLATIONS Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until April 26.

Set in Donegal in the 1830s, Brian Friel's celebrated play Translations is a tragi-comic exploration of fundamental issues concerning language, culture and education.

The British Army has descended on the "section" of land around the village of Baile Beag ("little town"). They are sappers come to map the area and anglicise the placenames - to make things easier to understand, of course.

The action takes place in and around a hedge-school run by the poetic, alcoholic schoolmaster Hugh O'Donnell and his crippled son Manus. But the hedge-schools, set up illegally to counter the Penal Laws which forbade a Catholic education, are coming to an end too. Following Catholic "emancipation", they are being replaced by National Schools. But the teaching medium will be English, not Gaelic.

Hugh's pupils, a ragged bunch of peasants, have little or no English, and find the mouthings of the English soldiers a constant source of amusement.

Friel's sense of linguistic comedy is delightful, and there is a beautifully observed romantic tryst between Gaelic-speaking Maire and a young English soldier, Yolland.

Young Maire is the only peasant-scholar to demand English lessons from Hugh, quoting Daniel O'Connell to the effect that "the old language is a barrier to modern progress" - she knows English is the language of emigration.

Behind everything lies fear of the "potato blight", a metaphor for cultural atrophy. Smouldering violence is counterbalanced by Hugh's lyricism and Jimmy Jack's fantasy love affair with the goddess Athene.

But what defence can lyricism offer a township facing eviction? Poetry, as Auden said, changes nothing.

This is a powerful production, with superb performances all round. The set is beautifully designed (Geoff Rose) and the play is a tribute to Mark Lambert's direction.

This Tuesday (April 22) the Lyceum is offering a free afternoon teach-in to schools, and there are still places available. Most Lyceum shows schedule at least one teach-in, usually suitable for pupils from 13 to 16. Up to 150 pupils and teachers meet the actors, talk about the play and break up into groups for workshops and discussion.

* Further details from Steven Small, tel: 0131 229 7404

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