Northern Ireland

Show marks return of Translations play to Londonderry

Cast on stage
Image caption Cast members Paul Woodson and Jade Yourell star as Yolland and Máire, who become embroiled in a love triangle

The work of the great playwright Brian Friel and the phrase 'Field Day' hold a permanent place in the hearts of Londonderry people.

So it is only fitting that as part of the City of Culture celebrations, one of his most renowned plays has returned home to where it was first staged, to be adapted for a new audience.

In 1980, Friel's Translations was performed at the Guildhall in Derry and received critical acclaim.

A new BBC Northern Ireland documentary, Athchuairt ar Translations (Translations Revisited), charts the significance of the play and shows a new cast and crew attempting to re-create the drama for a radically different Derry, 33 years on.


This time Adrian Dunbar was in the director's seat, and was given the task of making the play's core themes of linguistic diversity and cultural identity relevant again.

Image caption Adrian Dunbar directing rehearsals ahead of the production at Derry's Millennium Forum

Speaking to Radio Ulster, he said: "There's a lot of humour in Brian Friel's work and a lot of wonderful ideas, the main one being that language is extremely important to any culture.

"Every time it's performed it becomes its own triumph, reminding the Irish people that no matter what happens to them, that if they can bend and be flexible they will endure, and that their culture is the most important thing they have."

The play is set in Ireland in the 19th Century, in the fictional Donegal town of Ballybeg.

The action is centred around the local hedge school run by a widower and his eldest son, who are confronted with language barriers and teaching problems as Irish usage begins to fade away in favour of the English language.

With the help of several academics, the Irish language documentary explains why English became commonly spoken throughout Ireland during the 1800s, and how Friel's play explored the social ramifications of language for a 20th Century audience.

Positive outlook

The documentary uses segments of Friel's Extracts from a Sporadic Diary, recounting his writing of the play in 1979.

It also includes contributions from the cast, academics and critics to explore the historical and political context of the play, and discusses how Friel's well-known production company came about.

Field Day Theatre Company was founded in 1980 by Brian Friel in collaboration with actor Stephen Rea.

Image caption Stephen Rea and Brian Friel in 1980 on the set of the original production

Translations was the company's first-ever production, and the team's decision to stage the play in Derry left a lasting impact upon the city.

Speaking in the documentary, theatre producer and Derry native Dermot McLaughlin reflected on the importance of Field Day.

"It's hard to think of UK City of Culture 2013 in this city without mentioning Field Day, and even from looking back to the 1970s and 1980s, you couldn't imagine that we'd be having this conversation this year," he said.

"It had a power, importance and wealth of its own at that time. In a way, it reflects the positive outlook that this city always had, even when dark things were happening."

Field Day co-founder Stephen Rea told Athchuairt ar Translations that theatre is still an integral part of society.

"What was crazy and courageous in a way was that in the middle of all the appalling suffering of the Troubles, we threw a play and offered language as some kind of way out... I think something adjusted in some minds because of that.

"I'm delusional enough to think that theatre is an important part of our world, it's not just an entertainer at the end of a room that you might partake of if you've got a few quid to spare. I think it's an absolutely essential part of our discourse and our conscience."


Translations deals with the concept of the Irish and English communities reaching a cultural understanding through political and linguistic change.

Speaking in the documentary, author Declan Kiberd suggests that many of the ideas explored in the play are mirrored in the language and ethos of the Good Friday Agreement, a document agreed by Northern Ireland's political parties in April 1998, which sought to resolve the country's political and cultural divisions.

"Behind Friel's plays there is the same kind of rhetoric as in the agreement that, not only would the two cultures be on an even footing with parity of esteem and so forth, but that a person could be Irish and English at the same time," he said.

"Rather, identity itself is shared, divided, mixed up, and no-one in this country has just one identity, the whole thing is more complex."

Image caption The Field Day Theatre Company in 1980, when Translations was first performed at the Guildhall in Derry

Athchuairt ar Translations watches as the audience fills into the Millennium Forum in Derry for the opening night of the show, all curious to see if Translations still bears the same political and cultural resonance as it did when it was written.

With roars of applause as the final curtain closes, it is clear that the play has found a permanent home in the canon of Irish drama and in the history of Derry itself.

Director Adrian Dunbar told Radio Ulster he thinks it will continue to draw in new audiences for years to come.

He said: "It's a huge world play. It's a Pandora's box of questions with some fabulous answers. Where next for this great masterpiece, we ask ourselves?

"It's a very important play and it's going to last for a long time. It's a hugely positive thing for Derry and maybe a signpost to where we all should be heading."

Athchuairt ar Translations (Translations Revisited) will be broadcast on BBC Two Northern Ireland on Sunday 22 December at 22:00 GMT

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