Sunday, October 04, 2015

Brian Friel

Faith Healer (Finbar Lynch as Frank)
I first encountered Brian Friel's plays at University in the 80s.  A friend was in a student production of Translations.  It was not only the first Friel play I had seen, it was also the first post-colonial play.  I was studying history, and had an awareness of the context from with the ongoing Troubles sprang - but this was the first time I had seen theatre engage so powerfully and immediately with that complex shared past, leading its audience to re-assess the present.  At the centre of the play is the question of language, and Friel's theatrical device of delivering the whole text in English (the language of the audience) even when the characters are understood to be speaking Irish, was a glorious revelation.  Here was theatricality and comedy uniting stage and auditorium in an understanding of misunderstanding.  It was, I suppose, my Road to Damascus moment.  I have been travelling that rocky road ever since.

A few years later, I was in Dublin, doing a short period of study at Trinity, and was able to engage much more fully with Friel's work, coming to an understanding of his huge significance, not only as a dramatist, but as a cultural activist.  I read all his plays voraciously, and was lucky enough to see superb productions of Philadelphia, Here I Come (directed by Joe Dowling) and Faith Healer.  The latter would be one of the first plays Border Crossings ever presented, when in 1995-6, Richard Cave's production toured a series of overseas venues, acquiring new resonance and meaning as it responded to widely differing contexts.  The thought of it performing in Cairo seems extraordinary now, but Michael Keneally's review bears witness that, twenty years ago, it really did happen.

But for me, the most important influence of Brian Friel was in the form of the company he created with Stephen Rea, supported by Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin - Field Day.  Inaugurated with Translations in 1980, Field Day was the first contemporary Irish company to operate through the entire island of Ireland: a statement made all the more powerful by the fact that its base, and first performances, were in Derry / Londonderry - a city which at that time was a by-word for The Troubles.  The programming saw the gradual emergence of a clear vision for cultural regeneration.  Productions of Chekov and Molière translated into an Irish idiom, new Irish-English versions of the Greek classics by Heaney and Paulin, new Irish plays and (perhaps most tellingly of all) Athol Fugard's Boesman and Lena - all pointed up the centrality of language to meaningful political change.  The company went on to publish a series of pamphlets, starting with Paulin's A New Look at the Language Question, and a Dictionary of Irish English.  The entire project sought to regenerate the post-colonial space through the claiming of literary stature for Irish English, establishing a richer and more resonant language through the public practice of drama, enabling the possibility of new ideas and new expression within the emerging polity.  The heir of Synge and the ally of Fugard, Soyinka, Virahsawmy and Dattani - Brian Friel created a theatre that was genuinely transformative.  I believe that the current Northern Irish peace process owes far more to his endeavours than is acknowledged, and that the Irish future will be forged in the cultural revolution he began.

May he rest in peace.