Review of Translations at Cambridge Arts Theatre

11:36 12 March 2014

A scene from Translations at the Cambridge Arts Theatre.

A scene from Translations at the Cambridge Arts Theatre.


Written at the heart of the Irish Troubles in 1980 and set in 1833, when English soldiers were sent to Ireland to Anglicise the Gaelic place names, Translations opens in a Hedge School in Donegal.

Here, the ageing schoolmaster, the drunk but highly learned Hugh (played definitively by Niall Buggy, who creates a character right down to the blood) teaches not just the three Rs but Latin and Greek.

Hugh is never too drunk to pronounce his Latin - he is a rip-roaring enthusiast. The fortunate among us will have had a teacher like him. Those were the subjects we took on because such enthusiasm is potent. It never leaves you and neither will this play, it made me laugh and it made me cry.

The sub-plot is the coming of the National Schools, which sprang up in England and also in Ireland. They replaced the Hedge Schools where locals paid a few pence for their learning. The National Schools were free, but everything was be taught in English. Both Hugh and his devoted son Manus (played truly by Ciaran O’Brien) could do with being employed there because they barely have anything to live on. They live on their wits.

Irony pervades this play. The English soldiers sent on a mission, which in fact took 20 years and cost the equivalent of £98million to create a new map of Ireland for taxes, are unable to speak to the local people, not because they don’t speak Gaelic but because they don’t understand Latin.

This is an excellent motif for the occupier’s ignorance. Latin is the basis of English, the soldiers’ own language, but it has no connection to Gaelic.

They need a translator, of course, and isn’t there always someone willing to help? The urbane Owen, Hugh’s other son (played slickly by Cian Barry) who has gone to Dublin and made good, returns to his roots – after six years away - to make a few quid and smooth the path. He’s not good, he’s not bad, he’s a realist not a romantic.

The romantic is one of the English Redcoats. Ireland is having its only hot summer in 50 years and the lanky English toff, Yolland from Norfolk (played endearingly by James Northcote but staying well on the right side of parody) says he is in Eden.

Having only joined the Army because he needed a job, he wants to stay in Ireland and is trying to learn Irish. He falls in love with the entire country but particularly with Maire (Beth Cooke) and who could blame him? (He should have learned Latin at school but we assume at the time he was staring out of the window.)

Poignant then, that Yolland is the one who goes missing in the second half of the play. He is the last person who would want the terrible retribution on the local people that must follow.

Paul Cawley’s Captain Lancey, a plain-speaking, plain-dealing man who has had no visible encounters with romance or education, brings an intention cold as steel when he tells the villagers what will happen to them if Yolland is not found. He refers to the area as “this section”. You see that, however polite the first encounter, occupied people are powerless. Just as powerless under Britain as they were under the Romans. This is a subtle play which pierces the heart and James Grieve’s direction steps up to it. Here we have an ensemble production with every performance rounded and real. There are no weak links, all the characterisation is sound, all the humanity is there and all the humour.

A very faithful translation.

INFORMATION: Shows will run until Saturday (March 15), starting at 7.45pm with a 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Tickets cost £15-£27 from 01223 503333 or


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