Set play

19th May 2000 at 01:00
TRANSLATIONS. By Brian Friel. Salisbury PlayhouseBelgrade Theatre, Coventry.

Often seen as Brian Friel's masterpiece, Translations was first performed in 1980 and is a play which, says director Lawrence Till, "deals with a love affair in an environment in which it is not allowed to flourish".

Set in 1833, in the fictional Donegal village of Ballybeg, the play shows what happens when the British Army arrives to map the country, turning native Irish names into English - and also replacing the indigenous "hedge schools" with an imposed national educational system.

One of the mappers, the British lieutenant Yolland, makes friends with his Irish translator Owen, son of the old schoolmaster Hugh. Then Yolland falls in love with Maire, a local girl. In the final act, he's vanished and the Army threatens reprisals.

At the end, says Till, "Friel plants a number of key words: such as 'borders', 'tribes', 'always'. And these alert you to the nature of the different cultural conflicts that are going on. They also give the play a very contemporary relevance."

Simply designed with no gimmicks, this production is dressed in period costume, capturing what Till calls the play's "epic domesticity", with the sharpest contrast being between the muted clothes of the Irish characters, and the bright scarlet of the British.

"What makes Translations such a great play," says Till, "is that it arguesthat there are no easy solutions to problems in Irish history."

The complexity of the play, he says, lies in the fact "that each character has a logic but no simple common purpose". For all involved, whether British or Irish, the resultis a tragedy.

Yolland, the outsider, is "very much in the same position as the audience - he drinks in the culture and the atmosphere". He loves the classical references that Hugh constantly voices: they are familiar landmarks in an unfamiliar place.

"I'm trying to capture the richness of the story," says Till. The play is as much "about personal politics" as about the work of a colonial administration. At first, "there's a Mills and Boon quality to Yolland and Maire's love affair, but actually it ends up transcending language and culture. It is fundamentally about wanting to communicate feelings."

Friel uses a list of place names first as comedy, as Yolland and Owen translate them into English, then as a tender love dialogue, as Yolland and Maire repeat them, and finally as a sinister roll call, as the Brits threaten to burn the area in response to Irish resistance.

"Because the audience has invested in these names, each time it feels connected with them emotionally," says Till. "The play is rich because it's very funny as well as tragic."

Aleks Sierz

Salisbury (01722 320333) until May 27, Coventry (024 7655 3055) June 1 to 10

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