THEATRE / A world lost in the translation: Paul Taylor on a lucid revival of Brian Friel's Translations at the Donmar Warehouse

TACITLY embedded in Brian Friel's Translations is a huge, ironic discrepancy between the way the imagined events would have happened at the time (Ireland, 1833) and their theatrical representation over a century later. For nowadays, English is the language all the participants use - even those playing Irish-speaking Baile Beag locals, who would then have known more words of Greek and Latin, Translations suggests, than of the colonialists' mother-tongue. So, for long stretches of the drama, we have to pretend we are listening to Gaelic when what we are hearing is Irish-English. The play's own medium is a pointed, palpable reminder of where the linguistic and cultural changes, shown here as they are just being broached, eventually led.

Revived now in Sam Mendes' admirably lucid and affecting production at the Donmar, London, Translations is set in Donegal at a time of identity-confusing transition. The old voluntary hedge-schools are being replaced by compulsory national schools with lessons conducted in English. It's a world that's also under threat from the Royal Engineers' Survey, briefed to redraw the map and standardise local place names in forms acceptable to the English. Touchingly, despite having no common language, the young lieutenant Yolland (James Larkin) and the local girl Maire (excellent Zara Turner) fall in love. But then he disappears in mysterious circumstances (presumably murdered for not sticking to his own tribe) and the play ends in destruction as the map-making project retaliates by converting into an ultimatum-issuing military exercise.

Mendes has brought the proceedings out of the detailed interior of the hedge school, where the first production was set, into the open: a wide expanse of peat dominated by a high, lone tree. It's an arena that throws maximum attention on to the people and their relationships: especially valuable in this play where there is comparatively little time to establish a sense of the community before it starts to fall apart. A strong cast vividly conveys the diversity of folk who attended these classes, from a filthy, polyglot tramp (Tony Rohr), comically as at home in Homer's Greece as in Baile Beag, to a roguish, flustered young farmer (Daniel Flynn).

Friel rigs things a little in presenting the middle-class English soldiers as such ignoramuses about Latin and Greek. It's true, also, that at times the theme is thrust out too obtrusively, and I could have done without the symbolic limp in the schoolteacher's older son, who is played with a wonderfully intense, deprived air by Barry Lynch. But the play's treatment of language and cultural identity is both subtle and, enrichingly, hard to pin down. What shapes the people, the bibulous theatrical pedagogue Hugh (Norman Rodway) claims, is not the facts of history but 'images of the past embodied in language'. Would that include, say, those place names based on trivial, forgotten local legends, such as exasperate his translator son Owen (Robert Patterson)? No, the images must be renewed, he argues, or the people will fossilise. The drama doesn't display any false optimism on that score and at times it comes close to suggesting that a foreigner could never grasp the spirit of the culture. Perhaps so, but in offering much more than a tourists' guide to this vanished world, Friel's play feels like a consoling half-refutation of that view.

Runs to 24 July (071-867 1150).

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