Translations – Bedlam Theatre

Written by Brian Friel

Directed by Aisling Matthews and Catriona Maclachlan

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Language is everything. To lose it is to cripple the communication of love, autonomy, and identity. To control it, to manipulate someone, a culture, or a nation’s tongue is to exhibit an ultimate form of authority. And it’s something generations of solely-native English speakers struggle to comprehend.

In the fictional town of Baile Beag (Ballybeg), located in the real County Donegal, this 1980 play set in 1833 pushes itself as a story about language, only about language. And yet, the characters which rise forth and the additional themes which develop are undeniable. This small fictional village, filled with those content with their lives, others less so, is perturbed to discover, at their local hedge-school, the arrival of English troops, with a cartographer, an orthographer, and a young man they find familiar: their intention? To create a new map of the land. One with Anglicised names for the villages. One that omits the Irish origins.

For ease of the audience, the show is performed in English – wirter Brain Friel admits the tale should have been in Irish, but acknowledges the benefits and ability to tie deeper into the politics of it all by choosing the former. The intention, is that the Irish residents communicate in their home language (as well as Latin and Greek) while the English-speaking soldiers struggle to understand them.

Friel’s tale is clever, but not one without structural issues. Traditionally a three-acter, directors Aisling Matthews and Catriona Maclachlan’s pacing compacts the show into two without sacrifice. The Edinburgh University Theatre Company offers a touching and insightful performance, where accents and dialect are honed to a more than acceptable, occasionally perfectly pitched level, carrying the wit within Friel’s words to continue threading through additional elements of politics and story without outright complications.

From the moment audiences sit down, something stinks; in the nicest possible way. Half bark and compost, half fresh wood and board – the setting for Translations conjures the ruralness of it all flawlessly. It’s a particularly slick and effectively staged production, with Freya Game’s lighting design gradually darkening as the mood and temperature of it all slips. And come the opening of act two, as emotions burst with chaos unfolding, a tremendous surprise awaits, rounding out the dank, dreary nature of it all. It’s atmospheric, it’s savvy, and yet it’s a remarkably bare and simple staging allowing the performers to make the most of the space.

Once more, EUTC has the tremendous benefit of a superb cast. Capturing the everyday dimensions of each role with balancing how they all work off one another to enhance. And much of it starts with arguably the smallest, but most significant character, Sarah. A representation of the limitations and restrictions an imposition of not being able to communicate. An affliction her kin will soon share. A forewarning character, Erin O’Callaghan plays the role with a reservation, managing to never dominate or shrink away. It’s a sincere role, often nurtured, though occasionally sternly, by Conor Ó’Cuinn’s Manus.

A central character, Manus initially appears to be somewhat submissive to the goings on – endlessly infatuated with Máire and unable to truly take command of the classroom, whilst his father Hugh continues to treat his lame son with disdain. Sympathetic, Ó’Cuinn carries fire into the second act. His response to the curt remarks from Hugh, played with a stiff upper lip by Zac Askham, who gradually crumbles as the weight of it all builds, or the tenderness he shares with Emer Williams’ humourous and even prophetic Jimmy Jack aids in selling Manus as a man who loves his community, but could be pushed to potential extremes once the revelations of act two unfold.

There’s no question as to why his infatuation with Máire nor that of Lieutenant Yolland similar feelings towards her. Josie Embleton is remarkably human and dignified in their holding of Máire. Their interactions with all onstage offer a deeper understanding of her and their characters, the development coming over as authentic and genuine – particularly Embleton’s blossoming relationship with Amiran Antadze’s awkwardly charming Yolland. As the pair forge the path of the story forward, carrying a significantly amiable romance into fruition – feeling authentic in an intimate moment, caught in the misty, cold air of the fields.

And while Ó’Cuinn and Josie Embleton perform to an enclosed stage, watching one another and reacting, Ruby Loftus and Olivia Martin project towards the audience, turning to them though never in a manner to breach the fourth wall. Neither is the superior method to perform, but the decision in not maintaining a steady communication style across the entire cast leads to flickers where some performances remove the audience from the moment. But by the second act, everyone is on the same page in delivery – and it turns the shorter and more sinisterly tangible act into a pristine five-star hour of stagecraft. Indeed, by the closing moments, the once humorous brilliance of Loftus and Martin is now a shell of anxiety, a reflection on the lives of those younger generations unaware of how things were turning for them.

Hugh’s other son, Owen, is much of the catalyst for the production – returning to his father’s Hedge-school with the news of his involvement with the British forces. Chris Kane has a staggering amount of story to develop but achieves a remarkable pace and allure as Owen attempts to form new relationships and save older ones. Performing particularly seamlessly with Ó’Cuinn and Antadze, the latter and Kane sharing much stage time, helping the audience form a like for Antadze’s Yolland before his shocking disappearance in act two.

Initially, an almost caricature of the English elite class, bumbling and awkwardly over-polite, this belays Captain Lancey’s (Yolland’s superior) more aggressive and volatile colonist. What initially is fine, if a small role, gives way to a significant eruption of trauma and pain. In such a frozen moment, Lancey declares the punishments to the village if Yolland is not located following his dissapearance. The livestock will be executed, and the residents evicted. In precise, enunciated English, twisting the words Owen has helped craft on the community – Ackery recites all the evicted areas, leaving Owen the agony of translating back. Every anglicised name is a dagger. Kane responds with a steely but a fractured whimper of tarnished pride. It encapsulates the humiliation of it all, the lingering resentments of colonialism, which even after land and property are handed back, leave scars.

Translations is a production about languag – the language of love, identity, and ultimately, authority. There’s one thing which champions language: Art. Film, theatre, spoken word, and sonnet all capture and retain the languages and vernaculars of thousands across the world – long after their mother tongue has been assimilated by invaders, progressors, or colonists. The EUTC understands this, and rather than focusing outright on the dour, on the unsettling and painful result, they focus on the people – a delightful choice which broadens the production and warms, before driving the unfortunate reality of what happened deeper. It’s a continuing testament to the EUTC’s outstanding skill and prestige.

Exudes an Understanding

Translations runs at The Bedlam Theatre until March 4th. Wednesday – Saturday at 19.30pm.

Running Time – two hours and thirty minutes incl. one interval. Suitable for ages 15+

Tickets begin from £9.00 (£7.00 conc., £6.00 members) and may be obtained here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s