When prodigal son Owen (Billy Carter) comes roaring back home to 1833 Donegal, like some one-man Dublin Tiger ready to embrace the future and the fast bucks it promises to bring, Brian Friel's play resonates as powerfully as it did 25 years after its first staging in Derry. That its universality endures during these times of Peace Process as strongly as at the height of the Troubles is testimony to a modern classic.
Friel's complex and humane play enjoys a gripping and richly detailed birthday revival under director Sean Holmes. And the director and his cast are an impressive match for the writer's subtlety.
The Royal Engineers are in Ireland to draw up the first Ordnance Survey maps for the British Army and to "unify" the local place names through a process of enforced Anglicisation. Their bright, crimson uniforms seem absurd amid designer Anthony Lamble's drab palette.
Simultaneously, a system of National Schools is being introduced. It will replace the community-run hedge schools, such as the one in which the play is set. The hedge schools, often housed in barns, provided the only source of education after draconian measures from both Cromwell and King William III banning education in Ireland. Through the new system, however, English will replace Irish Gaelic as the national language.
With a writer of Friel's calibre, such a play never veers toward misty-eyed romanticism. The play is always pragmatic, with pleas for communication and understanding built in to its sturdy fabric. Friel's ever-moving lightness of touch ensures it never descends to mere "Brits Out" diatribe. It is a beautiful work that never calls for blood - joy often speaks louder than rage.
In the hedge school run by the irascible Hugh (Kenny Ireland), knowledge becomes not power, but a source of delight, of transcendence. Ireland's schoolmaster eschews patrician authority, engendering in his pupils the awe of learning evident in Friel's language through warmth.
The cliché of the whimsical Irish love of language takes some justifiable punishment, too. A relish for words is palpable, but Friel never forgets to remind us that language can tether as well as release. Some of the most memorable scenes pick up where language fails - particularly in the awkward love scenes between a reluctant British officer and a local woman.
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor's tongue-tied English lieutenant George Yolland is beautifully rounded by Friel and affectingly realised by the actor. He falls, in a silly but sincere way for the charms of first poteen, then Ireland and subsequently Maire (a hitherto bullish Mairead McKinley who seems to lose years in the presence of her clumsy suitor), the intended of local teacher Manus (David Ganly), Owen's brother.
While crediting men of the interloping army with their individual humanity, the play also blasts open some shameful stereotypes. Friel has fun with these stereotypes, too, handing blarney back to the imperialists and flipping it on its head so it becomes the language of bamboozling subjugation. The non-Irish-speaking British officer who merely turns up the volume in the manner of a gauche egg-and-chips-twice-por-favor-style holidaymaker is as idiotic as he is sinister.
Even the smallest of characters is drawn in detail. The mute Sarah, being coaxed tenderly into the realm of verbal communication by Manus just as the linguistic rug is being yanked from under the entire community, is touchingly played by Aislinn Mangan.
Billy Carter's energetic Owen, the local boy in the employ of the British army as translator, short-sightedly erasing his own country, never endures the judgement of his peers. Friel's elegant work saves judgements for the classrooms where this play is rightfully being studied, and in the hubbub engendered by this quietly fierce classic as we snake out of the auditorium into the night.
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