'To remember everything is a form of madness.' Ireland is transformed in Brian Friel's play about the infinite evolution of language

The day after seeing Adrian Dunbar's new production of Brian Friel's play, Translations, at the Millennium Forum in Derry~Londonderry, on driving out towards the Donegal coastline, each new road sign brings a rush of recollections. This is, in fact, the very landscape in which Friel sought to make his point about the inevitable and infinite evolution of language, and the regrettable decaying of Irish cultural identity in the 19th century.

On the horizon, the same contours of land as are represented in Stuart Marshall's understated set design. Here is Bridge End. There is Burnfoot. Big towns and cities have long been navigable by billingual signposts in Ireland, but regarding unremarkable landmarks and little hamlets like these, visitors need only read English to locate them – the old Gaelic place names have been forgotten, as Friel suggested they might be.

Written in 1980, and first performed in Derry~Londonderry's Guildhall in the same year, Translations is set in Donegal in 1833, at a time when the English monarchy sought to tighten its grip on Ireland through various acts of parliament and the ruthless supression of minor rebellions. There were no doubts as to their supremacy, and few distractions; London rallied her bureaucrats to rubber stamp the takeover by anglicizing the Irish map.



The indigenous population seem resigned to the fact that all is lost. Though the majority of Friel's cast of Irish characters speak only Gaelic, are suspicious of the English military and their Ordnance Survey, and are loath to learn the King's English – despite Daniel O'Connell's argument that language could also be used as a means to deny the Irish people their God-given rights – there is no appetite for violence, no apparent revolutionary fervor amongst them.

Manus, Sarah, Jimmy Jack and co get on with their lives as best they can in spite of the smartly-dressed elephant in the room. But Friel has his say on the English nonetheless, denouncing their language as limited, and by observing how their Irish subjects – so often lampooned as an inferior species, and despite their lack of resources – educate themselves in Latin and the classics at hedge schools while their foreign masters struggle to translate place names in a country in which they have held sway for centuries.

Friel has said that Translations is 'a play about language and only about language'. But of course that's not entirely true – Translations is as much a play about Irish history as anything else. There are references to the Great Rebellion of 1798, for instance, the flight to the Americas and the Great Famine ahead – 'Sweet God, did the potatoes ever fail in Baile Beag?'

These references give the play its context – and a love triangle involving Manus (who looks down on his brother, Owen, for working with the English), the flighty Máire and the romantic English officer, George, accelerates the drama forward.

But, in the end, Friel is right. Translations really is about language(s). The County Tyrone-born playwright has a ball with Hugh the school master's monologues, which invariably defend the lyricism of the Gaelic language – 'We feel closer to the Mediterranean; we tend to overlook your island'; Jimmy Jack's hilarious drunken soliloquies to Athena, the Greek goddess of the arts; and with Owen's attempts to figure out the derivation of various arbitrary Gaelic place names.

This is poetry as theatre, seemingly effortless and almost perfectly formed. It may not be Friel's masterpiece (take your pick!) but it's not far off one. Unfortunately, the third act does not live up to the previous two – the pace here is too quick, which is no fault of Dunbar's, with Manus' melodramatic flight to safety following George's apparent abduction coming across as an over reaction, and Owen's realisation that history will look on his translationary efforts negatively not a little naïve at this point.



But such plot developments are necessary if only to provide Friel with a framework around which to consider and explore the impermanent nature of language, how meanings alter through time, how the collective memory can fool us all. 'To remember everything is a form of madness,' Hugh exclaims, aware of his own fallibility, even as a respected teacher. But then, this was a time before the impact of heavy drinking on braincells was well known.

The staging in this production is relatively simple, with trees spreading their limbs above Hugh's rural household cum classroom, and rolling hills leading towards the coastline downstage. However, it is during the night scenes – when George and Máire first share a kiss and attempt, in vain, to understand what the other is saying – that Conleth White's skill as lighting designer becomes apparent, as a blanket of beautiful blue stars light up the Donegal sky.

Every cast member does Friel's script justice, from Genevieve Louise Barr in her first professional theatre role as the mute Sarah, to the RADA-trained Nick Tizzard as the tyranical Captain Lancey, who threatens evictions and widespread destruction of crops should his chief cartographer, George, remain missing.

Derry actor Dermott Hickson as the dashing but conflicted Owen, and English actor Paul Woodson as the lovelorn George stand out, perhaps because their characters have the most to lose. That sense of desperate ambition is sustained in their performances, which never falter, even during a fraught drunken scene that is riddled with hidden meaning.

This production will surely be remembered as a highlight of the season of Friel plays scheduled to take place in Derry~Londonderry during the UK City of Culture 2013 celebrations. The curtain falls on an audience drunk on Friel's extraordinary wordplay.