Ensuring nothing gets lost in Translations

As he readies a tour of Brian Friel’s classic play, Adrian Dunbar is adamant it doesn’t need any heavy-handed directorial interventions, writes Pádraic Killeen.

ADRIAN DUNBAR has worn a few hats over the years. Famous for his roles in film and television, the Enniskillen man has also known success as a writer, having penned the 1991 film Hear My Song, in which he also starred.

In more recent years he has distinguished himself as a theatre director, helming revivals of plays such as Frank McGuinness’s Carthaginians and Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come.

In fact, Dunbar is currently in full-on Friel mode. He’s just directed a production of Performances in the Millennium Forum, Derry, earning a welcome seal of approval from the author along the way.

“The show was a big success,” he says. “And Brian was delighted with it so we were thrilled about that.” Dunbar’s attention is now focused on a revival of Translations, one of Friel’s masterpieces. The new production opens in the Millennium Forum next week before touring to the Cork Opera House and the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin later this month.

Notably, both Friel shows were programmed to tie in with the celebrations of Derry’s year as UK City of Culture. It was in the Guildhall in Derry in September 1980 that Translations made its premiere before touring venues throughout the island to great acclaim. A play set in 1830s Ireland, the narrative centres on the tensions that arise in the small village of Ballybeg when members of the British Army’s Ordnance Survey team arrive to oversee the alteration of Irish place-names from Gaelic to English equivalents.

Translations was famously the first play produced by Field Day — the influential theatre company set up by Friel and actor Stephen Rea. Like Field Day itself, the play was a delicate cultural intervention into the political climate of its era, an attempt to present the subtleties of Irish history in a way that might be inclusive to all parties.

Translations is a play about many things. At its heart, it’s about language and the cultural imperialist practice of depriving a people of its language, but it’s also a play about the clashing of two cultures (the native Irish and the colonial British), and about the struggle between tradition and change. And it’s a tragic love story to boot.

The fact that Friel’s play is being staged as part of Derry’s current festivities, 33 years after its debut, and with the political transitions that have occurred in Northern Ireland in the interim, might prompt some directors to make Translations speak more directly to recent developments in the North. Dunbar, however, is resistant to any such heavy-handed directorial framings.

“My concerns are making sure that the actors know who they are, that they know what historical period they’re in, and that they understand the relationships between the characters,” he says. “And the rest of it can look after itself. I don’t have to concern myself with that. Brian Friel has written the rest of it. The problem is that in Ireland everybody thinks you have to have a ‘take’ on something. But if you have a ‘take’ on something then that’s a spoof. This is Brian Friel’s understanding of a particular period in Irish history. It’s not up to me to change it by having an idea about it.”

Indeed, amid all the possible discussion of themes and political contexts in Translations, it’s possible that Friel’s basic gift for spinning dramas that plumb the depths of human desire and psychology can be overshadowed.

“I think sometimes we do miss what a fabulous playwright Brian Friel is,” says Dunbar. “Because we’re always trying to push the artist who comes from the North into making statements about it. We’re constantly looking for things and we’re missing the play. Don’t miss the play. Don’t miss the humour. Don’t miss the tragedy. Don’t miss the relationships. Don’t miss all those things because those are the things that make it work.”

Moreover, if you get the storytelling and characterisation right, says Dunbar, then all of the intellectual elements that reside in the text will surge forward.

“If you adhere to the dynamics and construction of the play, and you push the relationships, and you start looking for the performances of the actors, then all the stuff that Brian is talking about starts to bubble to the surface anyway,” says Dunbar. “Because he constructs it so well.”

Loath as he is to impose his own ideas on Friel’s piece, Dunbar does point to one curiosity of recent years — the proposed move by the Irish Government to drop the townlands postal system and replace it with zip codes — as having a resonance with the play’s central narrative.

“Instead of living in Largydonnell you might be living in D5109,” says Dunbar. “At least at the moment, with the Anglicised names, we can still look back, because of the work that was done during the Ordnance Survey. Because there were Irishmen involved with the Ordnance Survey they tried to do the best that they could with their translations, so that in years to come we might have been able to look at the ‘duns’ and the ‘carricks’ and to have understood ourselves what the original names were in Irish. We still have that.”

Dunbar’s acting career is still his bread and butter. After Translations, he will begin shooting the second series of Line of Duty, the most popular BBC drama of the past 10 years. Yet he admits he has acquired a taste for directing and that, having acted for acclaimed figures such as Howard Davies, Danny Boyle and Jim Sheridan, like a magpie he has grabbed techniques and wed them to his own.

Having been an actor, does it make him more open to the actors under his own wing? “Yes, it does. I’ve got 10 actors in Translations and I’ve got to get them all to the starting line at the right time. It takes years for you to understand that people work at different speeds — that some people need encouragement, some people need pushing, and some people need a kick up the arse.

“My father was a foreman on building sites and he was really good at getting a day’s work out of fellas. And he did it without being a tyrant. He was a good guy. And I like to think that I have some of his ability to bring people on and give them confidence, get them up there feeling good about what they’re doing. Performance is all about confidence and so I’m lucky that I’m coming from that place. It would help a lot of directors if they tried a little bit of acting, so they can understand what the process is about. It certainly wouldn’t do them any harm.”

nTranslations runs in Millennium Forum, Derry Mar 13-16; Cork Opera House Mar 20-23; and the Gaiety, Dublin Mar 26-30


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