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Translations: New Adventures in Language

Following the successful original 1980 production and subsequent tour of Translations by Field Day Theatre Company, Tom Paulin stated afterwards in 1983:

“The history of language is a story of possession and dispossession, territorial struggle and the establishment or imposition of a culture.”

Few plays and fewer playwrights have stirred the question of’ Irishness’ and nationhood as much as Translations by Brian Friel. Since it was staged all of thirty years ago, the first production of the fledgling Field Day Theatre Company, it has become synonymous with the Irish obsession with language, connection to home and to the landscape in which that home is situated.

Denis Conway and Aaran Monaghan. Image courtesy of Abbey Theatre

Translations was written in the shadow and direct backdrop of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Friel, himself a Derry-born Catholic, experienced life on the front-line of this turbulent and bloody time. The political nature of Translations has perhaps taken on a life of its own outside of its intended level of intervention. Friel has often set on record that Translations is not a political play but is only about language. While Friel may have chosen to defuse the situation and down play the political and Nationalist fervour the play has come to be associated with, this is not so readily achievable.

It was unthinkable for many in 1980 to foresee an Ireland that would have later see a Downing Street Declaration, a Good Friday Agreement, a power-sharing executive. Now, thirty years since Translations was premiered by Field Day Theatre Company in the imposing Guild Hall in Derry, for so many it is unthinkable how very real the fear, violence and sectarianism was in the North. Today’sIreland is one more attuned to peace but still tragically not immune to violence. The murder of RIC Constable Ronan Kerr and British army soldiers at Mesereence Barracks have provoked an outpouring and committed resolve for peace in the face of those deluded few who insist on failed violent means.

Translations tackled the question of language like no other play in Irish theatre. Friel recognised that while land and connection to home, wherever that may be, can actually be superseded by a truer from of identity: how we express and communicate. While the threat of violence, eviction and also references to the Great Famine hung over the village of Ballybeg, the idea of knowing one’s identity and place through words rather than physical landscape is the true essence and beauty of this play. As Manus taunts his father Hugh following the ‘standardisation’ of the local place-names, he says: “Will you be able to find your way?”

Friel’s contribution to the identity question surrounding ‘Irishness’ on both sides of the border has been explored in depth in Translations but also in his other ‘language’ plays – Making History and Faith Healer. Friel’s use of the colloquial and local dialogue and speech creates entirely real worlds where his characters are reflections of the society and place that has shaped them. Many similarities along this point can be also be seen in the work of playwright Billy Roche, who has become as synonymous with finding a connection to the thoughts and language of the people of his native Wexford as Friel found with people in the North of Ireland.

If by Fintan O’Toole’s definition of a ‘Powerplay’ – a work being political, challenging and reflective of society and identity, then perhaps Translations is the ‘Powerplay’. It is also crucial to consider, is it just a powerplay of it’s own time? And can it still carry such an impact on today’s audiences as it did in 1980’s Derry? Translations does still have much to offer contemporary Ireland. Earlier this year, the visit by Queen Elizabeth II allowed for a mass re-evaluation of the colonial relationship between Ireland and Great Britain. Our own ability to recognise this visit as one head of state visiting a global equal as opposed to a colonial satellite was key to the mature and considered welcome Queen Elizabeth received. Recent revisions of works such as the Playboy of the Western World in a version by Roddy Doyle and Bisi Adigan put that classic story on a modern footing in contemporary Dublin and explored how immigration was shaping Ireland and the actions, thoughts and words of its people. Also works by The Company, including Who is Fergus Kilpatrick and As You Are Now So Once Were We, go to new levels in exploring questions of connection to place, city, country and the individual. The Company took this challenge to completely new territory, moving outside of the traditional literary text and engaged technologies, forms and ideas that turn the questions of place and language on its axis.

Translations will rightly be a classic of it’s time and also any time. Its original staging in the Guild Hall in Derry will be remembered as being one the most powerful symbols of how theatre can reflect and present society as well as crossing boundaries that traditional communication cannot. It is a fantastic opportunity to see the powerplay once again on the national stage. It also affords us the opportunity to consider the next generation of powerplays and guess at where they will come from and what they will focus on. As Hugh says in the closing scenes of Translations; “We must never cease renewing those images; because when we do, we fossilise.”

Translations is on the Abbey Theatre Stage until Saturday 13th August. www.abbeytheatre.ie

 

 

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Posted by on August 9, 2011 in Abbey Theatre, Culture, Theatre

 

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As You Are Now So Once Were We

Do you feel like you know Dublin? Really know it? Do you walk the same route along the same streets every day? Is your morning routine so rigid that it almost feels like you are repeating it, on loop, day in day out? Get up at the same time, go to the bathroom, eat breakfast at the same table with the same people and then go out the same door, together.

The Company

Are you in a routine so much that it feels like you are less in a real world and more in a rehearsal? This award winning work (Best Production, Absolut Fringe 2010) by the Company takes this ideas of ‘a day in the life’ and also taking inspiration from James Joyce’s Ulysses tracks the journey of each of the four characters from waking in the morning to their journey through Dublin City to the Peacock theatre where they must stage their new work, whatever that may be.

The Company members Rob, Tanya, Nyree and Brian play heightened characterised versions of themselves. The Peacock stage has seldom looked so open as Dublin City and its buildings and ‘box towers’ are represented by sweetly choreographed large cardboard boxes. The opening sequence where the ‘set-up’ of the stage is played out before you like a manic session of lego building.

The audience are taken on a virtual walking tour of Dublin, where streets, sights, smells and places are all name-checked. The concept of associating certain foods and smells with certain places in the city is reminiscent of scenes from Joyce’s book. The idea of ‘rehearsal’ is examined throughout the work as pieces are replayed, altered and replayed again. The story of Paddy Dignam is one such case. If time can be slowed, stalled and replayed, the question of intervention crops up, where all of us are in a social media-led, isolated bubble which leaves less time for actual human contact as simple as a hug as we concentrate more on virtual ‘poking’. The irony is not lost that as crowds pulse through the city streets as we are hell bent on getting from A to B without knowing what is actually around us.

As You Are Now So Once Were We. Image courtesy of the Abbey Theatre

The work is extremely humorous, the in-jokes and deliberate over-reacting, I thought, gave a particular aspect which I believe can easily be lost in a work of this form and that is a connection with the audience and a commitment to entertain and engage. I imagine it to be the only work at the national theatre to refer to its Artistic Director Fiach McConghail as ‘The F-Bomb!”

The influence and direction by Jose Miguel Jimenez, who was seated in the audience, plays no small part in the production as he strives to keep the whole concept of time – the moment and our place in that moment – fluid and on track. With As You Are Now… Jimenez has justified the much hype about his ideas and abilities. He, along with the Company, really have set Irish theatre ablaze with a new, exciting and unique brand of work.

What grated me somewhat were not the themes of the play, or its perhaps piggybacking-use and reference to Ulysses but actually what I heard and read from numerous others who saw this work. Yes, the Company are brash, yes, they are riding a huge wave of success and have big ideas and are experimenting with new forms that are not everyone’s ‘thing’ or within their comfort zone of theatre with a straight narrative. The Company are good, and they know it. But is this really a bad thing? It still means they are good! And when they are good, they are very good.

As You Once Were Now So Once Were We runs on the Peacock stage at the Abbey until 5 February.

Meet the members of the Company in conversation with theatre critic Peter Crawley at the Abbey, post-show, Wednesday 2 February.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2011 in Abbey Theatre

 

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