Brian Friel’s drama of colonisation becomes a timeless study of change and adaptation in a taut new co-production between Belfast’s Lyric theatre and the Abbey, Dublin. Based on the mapping of Ireland’s landscape in the 1830s, Friel’s play has been performed all over the world since its premiere by Field Day in 1980. Director Caitríona McLaughlin highlights its universality, avoiding sentimentality, with designers Joanna Parker (set) and Paul Keogan (lighting) creating a strikingly abstract stage picture: a sloping ridge evoking a cottage roof against a summer night’s sky.
In Donegal, where place names are being translated into English for Ordnance Survey maps, the English soldiers tasked with this exercise are assisted by a local man. Owen (Leonard Buckley) mediates between them and the villagers, who speak Irish only. When Lieutenant Yolland (Aidan Moriarty) becomes enthralled by the Irish language and landscape, he is teased by Owen for his misty romanticism: “The first hot summer in 50 years and you think it’s Eden.”
Change is encroaching on all fronts, as the makeshift hedge schools that teach Latin and Greek literature through Irish are about to be replaced by national schools where English will be compulsory. Owen’s father, the erudite and bibulous Hugh (Brian Doherty) and his put-upon son Manus (Marty Rea), both teachers, are forced to grapple with questions of language, communication and identity, personal and political.
Refusing to speak English to the soldiers, Manus resents Owen’s pragmatism, while Owen finds himself caught uneasily between two cultures. Although every character in this ensemble is given clarity and depth through subtle performances, the love scene between Yolland and Maire (Zara Devlin) has less emotional impact here than the tense interaction between the two brothers, compellingly played by Rea and Buckley.
Is their old language a barrier to progress, as Maire believes? Offering to teach her English, Hugh makes telling observations on the limitations of language, while articulating what is being lost. Often pompous, sometimes ridiculous, Doherty’s Hugh also has immense dignity. His proud assertion to the soldiers of his affinity with European culture emphasises the central, resonant idea: that identity is complicated – and not binary.
At the Lyric, Belfast, until 29 May, then at the Abbey, Dublin, 12 June to 13 August.