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Molly Sweeney/Translations - Festival of Friel (Leicester)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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This celebration of Northern Irish lyricism and the sheer exuberance of language is a well-earned tribute to the 81-year-old Brian Friel, best known for his play Dancing at Lughnasa.

On the face of it, there’s little to connect these two companion pieces beyond the wonderfully intimate setting of Curve’s Studio Theatre. They have different casts, different creative teams and very different styles.

Translations tells the story of the 19th Century mapping of Ireland by British armed forces, requirng the Anglicisation of place names and the consequent destruction of centuries of history and tradition. It’s told through the eyes of a group of Gaelic villagers in Friel’s pet location, the invented community of Ballybeg, and draws out its wider themes through the emotions and conflicts of the very personal relationships.

While the ear takes a while to become attuned to the strong accents, there’s poetry aplenty in the rich text, and director Mick Gordon stages a rich, conventional production that looks every bit as lush as the landscape it inhabits.

Performances are strong, too, with Emily Taaffe standing out as the wide-eyed local girl who falls fatefully for a British officer: symbolically, neither speaks the other’s language and the division becomes a metaphor for the tragedy that will follow the play’s end.

By contrast, Molly Sweeney is much more experimental in approach and structure, with three characters delivering a series of monologues more as storytellers than actors, peeling away the tale of the blind girl whose journey towards a kind of seeing is as poignant as it is intriguing.

Simone Kirby is immensely powerful as Molly, all optimistic concern for everyone else without a hint of resentment at being a guinea pig for both her husband and her eye doctor. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, a late cast addition, judges husband Frank brilliantly, revealing a restless soul in search of a cause, who adopts Molly for just as long as her condition gives him something to fight for.

And Des McAleer, as the failed, whiskey-sodden ophthalmologist Mr Rice, who sees in Molly the chance to rescue his career, is superbly lugubrious, sombre and wistful. The title notwithstanding, this is as much about Frank and Mr Rice and their discoveries of self as it is about the feisty Molly.

And in the end, what connects the two pieces is Friel’s fantastic facility with words, his obvious delight in the sound of language and the texture of dialogue. In both productions, this extraordinary dexterity is well served.



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