REVIEW: Brial Friel's Translations at The Abbey Theatre

By Katy Thornton

June 29, 2022 at 4:01pm


Translations by Brian Friel, one of Ireland's most famous playwrights, is currently playing at our National Theatre for the summer.


I was lucky enough to be invited to a showing of the Abbey Theatre's newest play, Translations by Brian Friel. As someone who has previously studied Brian Friel's work, namely Dancing with Lughnasa and Faith Healer, I was excited to get to see one of his plays on-stage, as it is meant to be experienced. Honestly I knew little going into the play, and I wondered would it resonate with me because of this. To cut a long story short, I can say it struck a chord with me, more than I even expected it to.

Why you should go? 

There's something about theatre, witnessing a performance as the actors are performing, that sometimes feels more visceral than cinema. I'm by no means a snob, I adore cinema as well and go at any given opportunity; I simply mean they're two very different experiences. I recommend going to see Translations at The Abbey Theatre if you want to see this difference for yourself.

It's also rather wonderful witnessing something magical and carefully curated that has a deeply personal Irish subject matter. Translations does a fantastic job of portraying the difficult and tumultuous relationship between Britain and Ireland in 1833.

Something I read in the play's programme was this:

"The questions and provocations within Translations are particularly live and current in 2022. As in 1833, when the play is set, it feels as if once again we are on the cusp of change, perhaps even in the early stages of a new world order, both on this island and beyond it."

I couldn't agree more, and to witness this on-stage is something truly worth seeing.


Set the scene

The theatre was almost completely full, a wonderful sight for the Abbey. The stage was simple; on the right side there was a table and some chairs, books, papers. There were small stools, where the actors were sit and use as desks. A wooden ramp was used almost to indicate a hill, for the characters to look over and see who was approaching, witnessing and telling us about things happening off stage. Manus, the headteacher, played by Marty Rea frequently appeared and disappeared up some steps on the left side, which acted as his home.

The backstory

Brian Friel wrote Translations in 1980, but it is set in Donegal, 1833. It focuses on an Irish speaking community as the English have come to impose their language on the town, standardising (or anglicising) place names and generally making their presence known. Tensions build slowly as the locals come to grips with the change, some resistant and unyielding, others open to the English language in the hope of leading a better life.

While the entire play is in English, it is understood the locals are speaking Irish, and mediator Owen, played by Leonard Buckley, must translate between them and the Royal Engineers who have arrived to map the region. While this sounds confusing, the fact that the actors are all speaking English, but consistently misunderstanding one another, actually works wonders to get their point across. To put it plainly, as described on the Abbey Theatre's website:

"Translations examines the fractious relationship between people and nations through the lens of language and (mis)communication." 

The highlight


There's a wonderful scene between Maire, played by Zara Devlin, and Lieutenant George Yolland, played by Aidan Moriarty, where the two try to converse and make their feelings known, despite one being Irish and one being English. It's a scene played for laughs, but there's a sweetness to it that makes both Maire and George seem layered and real. While they repeatedly question what the other has said, both characters are actually saying what the other is thinking; they just don't know that. The scene resolves itself in a way that almost implies that their differences don't matter, can be easily cast aside, but of course, we go on to see how untrue that is.


There will be showings of Translations that include audio description through an earpiece, captions, as well as Irish Sign Language. These performances are marked onsite for those who require them. The Abbey has wheelchair access, as well as seating that doesn't require steps. Those with accessibility issues cannot access the Abbey bar, which is upstairs, but staff can organise for drinks to be brought down to them, and there is a coffee bar on the ground floor.

How long is it showing for?

Translations runs until the 13th August.

Where is it again?

You can watch Brian Friel's masterful play at The Abbey Theatre on Abbey Street.

Prices from?


At the time of writing, tickets start at €16. You can book your ticket HERE.

Overall Thoughts

I'll admit, I always worry a little going to see a play that I haven't previously studied. While I'm familiar with some of Brian Friel's work, I had little knowledge about Translations ahead of watching this Abbey Theatre production. I'm delighted to say that going into this blind had no negative impact; in fact, it was incredible to experience it as it's meant to be experienced. As an English student, I'm used to reading plays rather than seeing them. Ironically enough, I think a lot of Translations would have been lost on me if I had indeed read it.

This play raises a lot of questions, about culture, about identity, and about language. Stephen Rea, co-founder of Field Day Theatre Company that first produced Translations for the stage said this:

"Theatre is more often a saner forum for political debate because theatre asks questions - it doesn't necessarily always answer them - but it provokes questions for audiences."

This sums up exactly how I feel about theatre; if anything, it allows me to access politics and history in a way I can personally connect with, through storytelling. All the way home from the theatre, I thought of the questions raised in this play, questions that even 45 years after its first production seem entirely relevant. The Abbey says this of the play's lasting pertinence:

"Brian Friel’s modern masterpiece finds a new potency, in a time where Brexit has thrown current Anglo-Irish relations into sharp relief, redrawing old boundaries, and opening up old wounds."

All I can really say is this is a play that demands to be watched; it's no wonder that it's considered one of Friel's best.

Header image via Instagram/abbeytheatredublin


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