Mar 4 2023 | By More

★★★★☆     Clear

Bedlam Theatre: Wed 1 – Sat 4 Mar 2023
Review by Thom Dibdin

Edinburgh University Theatre Company bring a welcome clarity to Translations, at the Bedlam to Saturday, in a production which gets inside the many shades of meaning to Brian Friel’s script.

There is nothing particularly fancy or revelatory to directors Aisling Matthews and Catriona Maclachlan’s production. Just thoughtful, commanding performances; a set that allows the play to fall out naturally; and a pace that reflects rural Ireland in 1833.

Olivia Martin, Ruby Loftus, Zac Askham, Conor Ó’Cuinn, Chris Kane (seated), Erin O’Callaghan and Josie Embleton Pic Andrew Morris

Friel’s script concerns a so called hedge school in the Irish speaking townland of Baile Beag, County Donegal, where the schoolmaster Hugh teaches all who can pay (whether in milk, cash, corn or potatoes), to write and count – as well as, through the study of the Greek and Latin classics, the etymology of their own language.

Indeed, an understanding and familiarity with Greek and Roman Myth comes before a familiarity with the seven times table. Unlike the arriving English Royal Engineers, who are on a mission to map the whole of Ireland for the Ordnance Survey and have nothing but their English to speak in.


Translations is a play which has resonances of colonialism, about how the naming of places erases native heritage and of the subjugation of a people through cultural assimilation. Not forgetting the use of mapping as a military tool and to impose new boundaries in order to extract maximum rents.

Heavy stuff, but Matthews and Maclachlan ensure that all these, and more, are worn lightly by creating a production that focusses on the personal dramas and broad comedy of the script itself.

Emer Williams. Pic: Andrew Morris

There is the bristling competition between Zac Askham’s dominating Hugh and Conor Ó’Cuinn’s cleverly portrayed lame son, Manus, who keeps the school running despite his father’s drinking and who refuses to go against him for a position in the new state school.

There is the broad comedy of the school room with the attendees to the school itself, Emer Williams as old man Jimmy Jack, still at school well into his dotage, Ruby Loftus as the bad boy of the class, Doalty, happy to play the fool, and Olivia Martin as his sometime foil, Bridget.

crucial action

There is a drama of the arrival of Manus’s older brother, Owen, on the payroll of the English army to provide translations of the local names for their map. And more again as Owen introduces his friend Lieutenant (George) Yolland, to pupil Maire, who is Manus’s intended, but who is losing interest as he prevaricates and defers to his father.

It is around this quartet that much of the crucial action takes place. Chris Kane creates a hugely complex character as the conflicted Owen, with Amiran Antadze a wonderfully dewy-eyed Yolland and Josie Embleton a strong and commanding Maire. The latter pair’s burgeoning romance really catches the heart.

Chris Kane and Erin O’Callaghan. Pic: Andrew Morris

Erin O’Callaghan as pupil Sarah, believed to be mute, but whom Manus is helping find the confidence to say her own name, and Ted Ackery as Captain Lancey of the Engineers both put in performances of great realism, around which the plot can pivot.

Sarah is arguably the most important narrative fulcrum. Her attempts and failings to speak need to be completely natural and O’Callaghan ensures that they are so.

Part of Friel’s scheme is that both the Irish and the English language of the play (place names apart) is performed in English. The whole company ensure that, by dint of who they are or how they are speaking, it is clear which language they are using.


Without ever being over the top, the accents are more indicative than always completely perfect. Indeed, that is echoed in the performances themselves. The  young student cast are subtle but successful in their approach to the age of the characters ranging from young Doalty, to Hugh in his sixties and the ancient Jimmy Jack,.

Set Manager Lois Zonnenberg’s set is well used, with half the stage covered in earth, and all artfully lit by Freya Game. Most impressive, though is Martha Barrow’s subtle sound design, which is hardly perceptible but adds just enough to hint at what is happening off stage or what is not seen.

A fiddle and flute trio of Anita Klementiev, Kieran Hagan and Jack Ó Coinneacháin provide a thoughtful prelude and interval music. With Ó Coinneacháin delivering a delightful song in Irish before the show’s start that really helps enhance the mood.

This is a very strong account of a great text. It is both engaging and entertaining, while beginning to address, or at least outline, issues of colonialism which have become toxic and confrontational in a different setting.

Running time: Two hours and 35 minutes (including one interval).
Bedlam Theatre, 11b Bristo Place, EH1 1EZ.
Wednesday 1 – Saturday 4 March 2023
Evenings: 7.30pm, Sat mat: 2pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

Ruby Loftus, Conor Ó’Cuinn and Josie Embleton. Pic: Andrew Morris


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