Brian Friel's play about language and cultural identity brings out the crowds in Dublin

Just three short months ago, Conall Morrison was directing the first show on the Northern Bank Stage of the newly rebuilt Lyric Theatre. His electrifying production of The Crucible may not have been to everybody’s taste, but, whatever the final verdict, one fact was indisputable: it proved an unforgettable experience.

From there, he headed straight to the Abbey Theatre to take on another modern classic, Brian Friel’s Translations. It is summer in Dublin, the tourists are here in droves and huge numbers are beating a path to the national theatre for an evening in the company of a fine play, brimming with subtle complexities, sub-texts and nostalgia.

Like The Crucible, Translations focuses attention onto an isolated community on the brink of seismic change. On the page, its unfolding events may be expressed rather more quietly and contemplatively than Miller’s furious allegory, but some of the performances on the Abbey stage feel forced and unnecessarily high pitched.

Still, Morrison brings to the table his customary astute and beady-eyed clarity of observation, allowing no nuance of the clash between the old ways and the encroaching new order to escape an audience, largely composed of eager, uninitiated foreign visitors and Friel enthusiasts.

At the time of its premiere by Field Day in Derry~Londonderry in 1980, Friel famously described Translations as 'a play about language and only about language'. It is about language, of course – or, indeed, languages. And what more apposite a moment for a revival than in the wake of the Queen’s address at the recent State banquet in Dublin, which began with a greeting in Irish?

Not for the first time, Friel subconsciously envisages a landmark moment in history, here the budding reconciliation of two linguistic traditions, which have long had a vexed and troubled relationship.

Translations takes place in pre-famine Donegal, where widespread apprehension of potato blight is in the air. Designer Naomi Wilkinson’s vast wooden barn is the setting for Hugh O’Donnell’s hedge school in Baile Beag, where ostensibly simple country people are taught Latin and Greek through the medium of their native Irish tongue by an alcoholic schoolmaster (Denis Conway) and his disabled son Manus (Aaron Monaghan).

Manus was physically and psychologically damaged when his drunken father fell on him as a small child. Between them, father and son provide a brief if chaotic respite to this gallery of damaged characters, led by the brilliant but derelict genius, Jimmy Jack (Donal O’Kelly).

Their adult pupils take to their lessons like ducks to water, conjugating verbs, identifying the roots of nouns, swopping tales from the Aeneid and the Iliad, trading anecdotes of gods and mythical heroes. With one notable exception: Sarah is semi-mute and tongue-tied, but, in Janice Byrne’s sweetly sensitive performance, the rasping emergence of her voice, proclaiming her own name, is a moving and beautifully crafted dramatic moment.

They are preoccupied by the arrival of a group of British soldiers, tasked by the Ordnance Survey with surveying and remapping Ireland and, in the process, rendering the beautiful Gaelic names of villages and townlands into more prosaic English translations.

Well meaning they may be in their overbearing intention to open a gateway into the wider world, but how else can their work be seen than as an erosion of cultural identity? Slowly Friel peels away the layers of the storyline to reveal a web of contention stretching far back into history and revolving around issues of identity, occupation, colonialism and cultural imperialism.

And there is a love story too. Tim Delap as Lieutenant Yolland is the epitome of the naïve outsider, falling desperately in love with this brave new world, its poetic language, its quaint inhabitants and sparky red haired girls.

The scene in which he and local beauty Maire declare their passion through the exchange of English and Irish place names is is touchingly achieved, though Aoife McMahon’s return as a deranged, Ophelia-like figure in the aftermath of Yolland’s mysterious disappearance feels a tad over-reactive.

The integrity of the production finally takes hold through the culmination of two splendid performances and the climactic final bars of Conor Linehan’s glorious score. Through a haze of alcohol, Jimmy Jack and Hugh look back on their halcyon days as aspiring young bucks, while bemoaning the passing years and the thwarted ambitions of a once-great society, soon to be rent asunder.

Translations runs in the Abbey Theatre until August 13.