Brian Friel's great achievement in Translations is to play with audience expectations as easily as he plays with words. A drama of colonisation based on the mapping of Ireland's landscape in the 1830s becomes a supple meditation on language and identity rather than a lament for a lost idyll. While it has a tender central love scene, it is anti-romantic; there are moments of pathos and pain, yet it is not a tragedy.
In Donegal, where place names are being translated into English, the makeshift hedge schools teach Latin and Greek literature through Irish. As these are about to be replaced by schools where English will be compulsory, the local teachers, father and son, try to make sense of their predicament. Is their old language a barrier to progress, as one character, Maire, asserts, and does progress for her inevitably mean emigrating to America? For Owen, who mediates between the English soldiers and the villagers, the choice is clear. His brother, erudite and resentful, can't shrug off his cultural heritage so easily.
In Conall Morrison's production, the tensions are finely balanced, with Aaron Monaghan bringing a poignant sense of injury to the role of Manus. Refusing to speak English, he flinches from the impending changes, including the loss of his hopes for a life with Maire.
Some of the other characterisations are much less subtle: the opening ensemble scenes have a comic tone that seems strained. Jimmy Jack, quoting endlessly from Homer, is portrayed as bonkers rather than merely eccentric, while Denis Conway's lurchings as the older schoolteacher Hugh are heavy handed. A complex character who makes telling observations on the limitations of language, he becomes a spokesman for what is being lost. For all Hugh's drunken fluency in four languages, his prolonged silence towards the close is his most expressive.