The astonishing achievement of Brian Friel’s 1980 reflection upon colonialism and its consequences, here produced with some style by Andy Arnold’s Arches company, is the subtlety with which it springs its trap. From a quiet beginning it fosters a boiling rage at the notion of folk being rendered into otherness in their own parish, in a manner that turns up the heat as gradually as is imaginable.
In it, we meet Hugh (John Bett), the master of a hedge school in rural Donegal in 1833 whose semi invalid son (John Paul Hurley) does most of the ministering to students. One of these, Maire (Muireann Kelly) is the love of his life. The arrival, accompanied by Hugh’s prosperous city dwelling son (Andy Clark), of a party of British soldiers intent on a topographical survey that includes the Anglicisation of local place names, though, brings trouble in the shape of Captain Yolland (Tim Barrow), an amiable rival for Maire’s affections.
Hazel Blue’s splendid barn and home setting overarches the action beautifully, as the issue of language and the at first dormant notion of national identity begins to subsume the characters’ consciousness, and even the developing love story between Maire and Yolland. As the comedy, which bases itself almost entirely on the misunderstanding of language between the nationalities gives way to a darker more questioning conversation emerging from the same, the piece gathers a mighty impact. This is foreshadowed by some amazing set pieces, especially the dance between Kelly and Barrow that opens the second act, which transforms into a delicately nuanced erotic minuet, as Irish, English and Latin are of less use than the simple word ‘always’, a resilient yet ill fated term in both history and love. There are some tremendous performances all round, with Clarks’s young man torn between cultures a particular highlight.