It's the opening night party following a new production of Brian Friel's 1980 play, Translations, at the Millennium Forum in Derry/Londonderry, and the room is packed. The production forms a major part of the programme for Derry's year as UK City of Culture, and it's largely young cast are all dressed up following a couple of hours in suitably dowdy nineteenth century attire in a play that looks at how the British Army were tasked to translate place names from ancient Irish Gaelic to the King's English.
In the far corner of the room, the play's eighty-four year old author is sat on a sofa next to its director, quietly holding court. Most enthusiastic of all is a small gaggle of sparkly-frocked actresses who line up to take each other's photographs on their phone cameras while sitting next to Friel, as if he were a pop star. Which, in terms of Irish theatre, he is.
During the interval, the play's director had been standing in the corridor next to the auditorium, equally unmolested. The fact that he was standing opposite a portrait of iconic Derry-born tenor, Josef Locke, was all too fitting. It was Locke, of course, who provided the narrative drive for Hear My Song, the 1991 film about a shabby nightclub owner's quest to find Locke. The nightclub owner was played by Adrian Dunbar, who also scripted the film as he embarked on a film and television career which has taken him from stints on Cracker and Ashes to Ashes to the recently released film about Belfast's punk scene, Good Vibrations. Dunbar also happens to be the director of this new production of Translations, which arrives in Edinburgh next week. The morning after what ended up being a very late Derry first night, and, breakfasting in the secluded cottage where he's staying on the outskirts of Northern Ireland's second city, Dunbar may be weary, but he remains enthusiastic about what is clearly a labour of love.
“The pressure was on,” he admits, “because Derry owns the play, and you can feel from the audience that they're very possessive of it.”
As they have every tight to be about a play which is of huge significance to Derry. When the play first appeared there, at the Derry Guild Hall a stone's throw away from the Millennium Forum, the Irish Troubles were at their bloody height, so any play that looked at cultural colonialism was a brave move. The production also announced the arrival of Field Day, a crucial collective of Irish writers and thinkers that began as a collaboration between Friel and actor Stephen Rea to put Translations onstage. As well as Rea, also appearing in that production were Liam Neeson and Ray McAnally.
By that time, Field Day had broadened its activity, with poets Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin, and writer Seamus Deane involved in what had become a Northern Irish super-group, with the aim of providing a dissident artistic voice in a divided country. It was Translations that put the company on the map.
“When it was first performed at the Guild Hall all those years ago, it came during a very dark, bleak time in Northern Ireland's history. I was reminded last night that when Field Day did it, they were all living at the end of some corridor in McGee College, with a couple of gas rings that they were cooking off, and that there was only one Chinese restaurant in Derry. It was that period when there wasn't a lot going on, and into the middle of that came this incredibly uplifting masterpiece of a play that really woke everybody up, and brought some light and joy and fun as well as everything else into people's lives. So I think it's a really healing piece in that respect. It's that kind of a play, and we were just hoping to celebrate that.
“There's a line in the play that says if we stop reinventing images of ourselves, we fossilise. It's not the literal past, Brian says, that defines us, but images in words of the past. So that's why words are so important. I'm always brought back to that idea of the Bible beginning with the line, in the beginning was the word. That's very clever, because it's how we fashion the myths about ourselves, like in Greece and Rome, it's not the facts of history that shape a people. It's the myths that they build up about ourselves.”
Dunbar sees this notion as being particularly pertinent for Scottish audiences at this time.
“Like all masterpieces, the play's not defined by the moment it was written,” he says. “A huge amount has been written about the play's politics, because of how it was contextualised at the time, but it's politics are very small. It's more about language, and how people reinvent themselves, and how you have to keep doing that.
“I think the Scots will understand that, because that's what's happened to them. The Victorians decided to reinvent them as a nation, and put this layer of invention across the top of this race of people that doesn't actually belong to them at all. I think if the Scots are moving towards independence, they're going to need people to reinvent them again, and to break them out of this tartanised shortbread box image which has nothing to do with themselves, but is to do with the Victorians wanting to put everything into a box. They were very clever about putting spin on things, but the final act of the clearances was to actually reinvent what Scottish culture was about.
“At this particular stopping off point where the Scots are at, I think Translations will have a huge resonance for those people who choose to look for it. That's not about politics. It's about something else, a bigger debate that's to do with reimagining who you are again, so you can face the next bit of your future. So I'm very hopeful that the play will provoke a debate that's about Scottish culture. Westminster still seems to be trapped in this 1833 Ordinance Survey idea of what Scotland is, and Westminster's reaction to anything happening in Scotland still has this ring of Victoriana about it, and that's why they're not aware of a consciousness in Scotland that's shifting, and has been shifting for some time. And by the way,” Dunbar says, “I think English people living in Scotland are crucial to what happens next, and they might do everyone a favour and vote for Scottish independence.”
Translation, Kings Theatre, Edinburgh, April 15th-20th
The Herald, April 9th 2013