THE greatest of Brian Friel’s plays was born of its time, but, as an exploration of what happens when a dominant power fails to hear the voice of another culture, it feels like it could have been written yesterday.
KING’S THEATRE, EDINBURGH
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ORAN MOR, GLASGOW
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IN A TUMBLEDOWN barn somewhere in the west of Ireland, an unlikely group of young girls and one old codger sit on two rows of rough benches, learning Latin. The year is 1833, and twin disasters loom just below the horizon. On one hand, there is the coming potato famine of the 1840s, foershadowed in the dreaded “sweet smell” of potato blight; and on the other, there are British troops, steadily mapping out the landscape of Ireland – following the union of 1801 – so that they can tax and clear,
rename and anglicise, claim possession of the country for ever.
For the time being, though, there is still a kind of Arcadia in Ballybeg; and in this greatest of Brian Friel’s plays – first seen in Derry in 1980, and now revived in this new production by Adrian Dunbar to celebrate Derry/Londonderry’s year as European City of Culture – he shows us a community of people who argue, sing, dance and live out their lives in a land and seascape of timeless beauty. At the heart of it stands the old, drunken schoolmaster Hugh, who can see and sense the deep links between Ireland’s fading rural life, and the much more ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, which he tries to impart to his pupils. Their languages are Latin, Greek and Irish, with English spoken only when strictly necessary, since Hugh regards it as an inferior tongue; and although restless young Maire would like to learn more English, the whole community is vastly amused by the dim-witted monolingualism of the British soldiery, who depend on the translations provided – after a fashion – by Hugh’s ambitious son Owen, now in the pay of the colonial power.
The scene is set, therefore, for a brilliant drama about language as an arena for the assertion of power, for subtle human resistance, and also – in the play’s most magical moments – for mutual enchantment and desire between cultures that yearn, for the oldest of reasons, to know one another better. At the heart of Translations is the love triangle between the lovely Maire, Hugh’s schoolmaster son Manus, and young Lieutenant Yolland, the junior British officer who yearns to leave his old life behind, to become part of Maire’s world. And although the story ends in tragedy, with darkness creeping over the land as Hugh recites the ominous opening lines of the Aeneid, along the way the play provides a magnificent, humane and wide-ranging insight into every effort by one group of human beings to wipe out the culture and story of another.
Adrian Dunbar’s production is slightly uneven in texture, inclined to lapse into the odd cliché of rural comedy, and perhaps a little unsure in its handling of the play’s elegiac ending. Yet it is quite beautifully lit by Conleth White, on a simple set by Stuart Marshall; and it offers up some fine performances, notably from Des McAleer as Hugh, and from Dermott Hickson as the troubled Owen, who works for the British and befriends the young Lietuenant, but finally cannot bridge the gap between two cultures on the brink of war.
And in this week of all weeks, it’s finally impossible to resist the depth and clarity of Brian Friel’s vision of what happens when a dominant power refuses to hear the voice of a culture it would consign to history. The deafness of the powerful to narratives that contradict their own, their effort to rename everything in their own image, their genuine amazement when they encounter the deep anger of those they have ignored, and the agonised debate between Owen and Manus about the value of small gestures of resistance: like all great dramas, Translations is a play born of its own time, that nonetheless feels as though it might have been written yesterday.
There’s also a small, glorious act of resistance at Oran Mor, this week, where the fine veteran singer, actor, composer and musician David Anderson offers his latest small-scale lunchtime musical in the shape of Butterfly Kiss, a short autobiographical show for a cast of three, set in a Clyde coast holiday resort – Girvan, or maybe Troon – in 1960.
The central character is The Boy, played with terrific feeling and a great singing voice by Jack Mullen. As the introduction makes clear – Anderson as The Man remembering his own distant past – The Boy is The Man aged 15, tearing himself away from a girl called Elaine who has broken his heart at school, and heading down the water with his parents for the annual summer holiday.
As always with Anderson, the richness of the show is in the songs, some of which are magnificent; the one called My Old Man, in which the Boy describes his relationship with his Dad, is almost an entire social history of Scotland in the postwar period, packed into a few well-shaped verses. Katie Barnett joins the cast as Chorus, and as the girl who heals the Boy’s broken heart with her butterfly kiss.
And if there’s the odd slightly misjudged moment in this new work – a song too long here, an unnecessary episode of broad-brush-stroke political satire there - the show as a whole is extraordinarily moving and powerful; perhaps because it combines a timeless and absolutely heartfelt yearning for a lost moment of youth with a true sense of the political landscape in which this particular sixty-something life has unfolded, and a deep sense of loss that goes beyond the individual to a whole society, and the ominous future of the earth itself.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
ROARS of applause at Oran Mor this week for young Jack Mullen, right, a final-year student at Langside College in Glasgow, who turns in a superb, deeply felt and beautifully-pitched performance as The Boy in David Anderson’s new musical, Butterfly Kiss. It’s not easy for a young actor and singer born in the 1990s to think his way into the mind of the generation that was 15 in 1960. Yet Mullen makes that huge leap of understanding, across a gulf of political, emotional and material change that sometimes seems unbridgable; and he turns in a performance that is as entertaining and humorous as it is moving, in its effort to reach out a hand and a voice, across the generations.
• Translations and Butterfly Kiss both run until 20 April.