English Touring Theatre, Sheffield Theatre and Rose Productions
From 23 April 2014 to 03 May 2014
Review by Melissa Poll
Let’s face it, for actors, the last leg of a long tour can be boring. Delivering the same material six to eight times per week for months takes its toll, making it a challenge to keep each performance fresh, active and rooted in the character's objectives. Once the director is no longer cracking the whip, scenery munching and a slackened pace have a habit of creeping in.
Though the English Touring Theatre’s production of Brian Friel’s Translations is strong, as presented in the last weeks of a three month tour at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, the first act is beginning to manifest an ‘end-of-the-run-is-nigh’ flavour.
Friel’s formidable play is in no way part of the problem. A love letter to language in any register, be it Gaelic, Latin, English or purely physical, Translations tells the story of a fictional Irish town in the 1830s as English soldiers arrive to map the region and anglicise place names with an eye to new taxation opportunities.
Hugh, a good-natured, alcoholic schoolmaster, soon finds himself welcoming his prodigal son, a military translator named Owen, and two English soldiers into his classroom. Complications arise when Hugh’s younger son Manus discovers that, despite the language divide, his long-time crush, Máire is falling for the English soldier Yolland. (As per Friel’s conceit, all characters speak in English though their interactions are played as if stunted by language barriers.)
Despite James Grieve’s strong direction, the first act lags somewhat. Niall Buggy, a solid Irish actor with the credits to match, brings great humour to Hugh’s drunken stream of consciousness tirades, spouting Latin and Greek while impatiently quizzing his students. There were moments, however, when Buggy let end-of-run-itis sneak in, indulging his bellowing pedant at the expense of spectators’ eardrums and patience.
For James Northcote (Yolland), the obstacle is physical. This young actor has the potential to be a presence on stage if he learns to own his height and inhabit his body with confidence. As it stands, though, he spends most the performance lowering himself with buckled knees, either trying to meet the gaze of a scene partner, playing up his character’s apologetic nature or working far too hard to physicalize Yolland’s playful, romantic spirit. In the last scene of the first act, Northcote’s struggles are further compounded by a lack of pace and the necessary stakes to drive the action in a lengthy conversation with Owen (Cian Barry).
Thankfully, the second act of the English Touring Theatre’s Translations rediscovers the depth and inner engine that brought the production significant praise when it opened in Sheffield. As the townspeople begin to pick-up on the long assimilationist arm of the empire, Yolland goes missing after an intimate moment with Máire.
Beth Cooke is excellent in this role, throwing the self-assured swaggerer from act one into high relief through her second act portrayal of a young woman in pieces, losing herself over the thought that she’s caused her first love's disappearance.
In fact, everyone is largely on track here. Cian Barry (Owen), who gets the audience onside off the top of the play with his inventive translations of the soldiers’ English, is the anchor for much of this act. We watch as his youth and enthusiasm are gradually eroded by the realization that what his colleagues want goes well beyond anglicized names for the countryside. Ciarán O’Brien (Manus) and Roxanna Nic Liam (Sarah) also shine, with Manus struggling to speak openly of his heartbreak and Sarah, a former mute, regressing back into a world without language after being bullied by the English captain (Paul Cawley).
The last scene, which features Máire, Jimmmy Jack (the fantastic John Conroy) and Hugh, sees Tranlsations's at its best as the trio deliver an evocative lament to the loss of love and language.
This strong production of Translations has been loosened by time and familiarity. In the week that remains, hopefully it will return in full form.