25 April 2014

Bemused by Translations at the Rose Theatre

When the new season at the Rose Theatre was announced I bought tickets for four shows but not for Translations. Then I saw the ratings from previous performances on their tour and jumped in then.

Being a little late to the game meant that I was in one of the side blocks but I was still just early enough to get a seat in the first proper row (A13).

The stage was built out for Translations, as it was originally designed to do, and that meant that the Pit (where you sit on the floor and have to bring your own cushion) was severely curtailed and I only had the three rows of Pit Seated in front of and below me. I like the stage arranged like that and I would like to see the Rose do it more often.

Set in 1833, Translations tells the story of a small Gaelic speaking village in rural Ireland and a small group of English soldiers who have come to map the area to allocate English names to all the places.

They are helped in this by one of the villagers who had left a few years previously and made some money in the city. He acted as translator and also helped the English to understand the meanings behind the Gaelic names so that proper English equivalents could be determined.

A girl in the village falls in love with one of their soldiers despite neither of them knowing more than a word or two of each other's language.

Then something unexpected happens and it all turns nasty.

The main theme of Translations was, obviously, the clash in cultures epitomised by the different languages. This was the soft colonisation of Ireland. It seemed to be a simple point of which not much was made and the play ended on an uncertain note. There was a noticeable pause after the lights went out before the applause started.

There were lots of funny scenes in the play, such as when the girl and the soldier were talking to each other and saying much the same things but without knowing it because of the language difference. We in the audience could tell what the girl was saying as she was actually talking in English for our benefit, we just knew that she was really speaking in Gaelic.

The device of having all the Gaelic spoken in English worked well and as each character was either Irish or English (only one of them knew both languages) it was obvious to us which language was being spoken.

There was a small cast of characters around the couple. In the village there was an elderly school master, his lame son, his friend and several of his students. It was an interesting bunch of people but it was not clear what their roles were. The dumb girl gave us another perspective on language but, again, it was a simple point simply made.

The school master, his friend and his son were lovers of the classics and so we heard a lot of Homer and Virgil etc. I am note sure what the point of this was. It could have been an excuse to show the ancient origins of some modern words but that seemed like a lot of effort to make a minor point.

I left bemused. I had enjoyed a lot of the scenes but the story did not really go anywhere or end, and I did not feel particularly interested in any of the characters to care about them. It felt like a draft of an unfinished play.

I am sure that the critics who gave it five stars knew what they were talking about and they almost certainly saw more in the play than I did but clever plays still need to be accessible on first watching and I struggled to find any point or meaning to Translations.


  1. Matthew,

    While I don't agree with you - I saw the play tonight, and found it a much more rewarding experience than you seemed to - I think I understand some of your bemusement.

    My feeling is that some of that uncertainty comes from a production which neuters and sanitises Translations for a post-Troubles British audience. It is a far darker and far more overtly political piece than the one I saw tonight. The first half here was played as almost entirely a bright and breezy comedy of cultural misunderstandings. References to the Donnelly twins for example (the clear counterpart of the Provos) are thrown away and underplayed. This makes the second half much harder to make sense of.

    It is a play which comes out of the Troubles, and is first and foremost about the Troubles. In 1980, in nationalist Derry where it was first produced, it would have seemed obvious that Owen was collaborating with the British state ('a legitimate target'), and even more so that it was not a wise move for a British soldier to be wandering off to a local dance on his own. (In the 70's several British soldiers were killed after being lured into assignations with local girls; Friel's version has this as a genuine romance, but a contemporary audience would have got the reference, and seen the storm brewing).

    This production also placed Hugh the teacher at the centre of things, and in fairness the actor played that part with bravura, and in many ways carried the performance on his own. But it is Owen, the confident son who returns from the city with his 'friends' the soldiers, who should be at the heart of it. He knows that what he is doing is a betrayal - think of how he fails to correctly translate the Captain's first speech to the villagers, for example - but thinks he can get away with making a quick buck without any great consequences. When he first appears he is on top of the world, by the end he has had everything pulled out from under him. This is the classic trajectory of the tragic hero, but the actor in this production was among the weakest in the cast and couldn't bring the audience with him at all.

    (Incidentally, in that first 1980 production Owen's part was taken by Steven Rea, and almost certainly written with him in mind. Having seen Rea on stage in the 80's - though not quite as early as that - I can't help but think he would have held our attention far better than the actor here, and thus changed the focus of the drama whether the political angle was stressed or not).

    1. Thanks for that. I got the references to the Troubles, my Mum was a Catholic from the border region, but that all seemed rather obvious and I was looking for more. Your comments on Owen were useful.as I found that the story lacked focus and direction and you are right that too much was made of Hugh.

  2. Thanks for replying, Matthew. If this was Facebook I would be clicking the Like button. It was interesting to read your piece, and I will watch out for others.


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