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A timely reminder

Fra believes a lot of London Irish will relate to Owen’s divided loyalties. Pictures: Catherine Ashmore

David Hennessy spoke to Translations star Fra Fee on the parallels with the play and today’s current events

The late Brian Friel’s ground-breaking play about borders, Irish identity and cultural imperialism, Translations, now showing at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank, could not be more relevant to event happening just across the Thames in Westminster.

Dungannon actor Fra Fee’s character Owen returns home to Friel’s much-used, fictional village of Baile Beag aka Ballybeg to translate local place names from Irish into English

“It’s a coincidence really that it has happened now,” Fra Fee tells The Irish World of the timing of Translations coming to the National Theatre what with urgent Brexit’s negotiations also taking place just a short walk across the bridge to the House of Commons.

Set in the Donegal village of Brian Friel’s play sees Fee’s character Owen returning home to the Donegal village of Baile Beag (Ballybeg) to translates place names into English. A play about language, it contains powerful themes like cultural imperialism.

Ciaran Hinds plays Fra’s father in the play

“Once we finish our first block, we have a gap after which when we come back, Britain may or may not be in the European Union and the Northern Irish question of whether Northern Irish people will have citizenship as Irish people or just solely British will be in question. This is what this play is about, it’s about borders and identity and it’s not just to do with land mass, it’s to do with the cultural value of a place. It just seems like the most perfect time to be telling it. Some of the lines I’m hearing in rehearsals are so in tune with what is happening now, it could have been written today.”

Fra’s previous work includes appearing alongside Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe in the Les Misérables film as well as performing on Broadway in Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, a role he also won a WhatsOnStage award for Best Supporting Actor.

Being from Northern Ireland himself, Brexit and its unknown implications for Northern Ireland have concerned him: “It’s extremely worrying. The arrogance and the irresponsibility of the British government is just staggering: To have allowed things to have got to this stage, ignoring the question over Northern Ireland. It’s deeply upsetting, it makes us all very angry but all you can do is try and put that into the work that you do which is certainly how we’re getting through it as a cast.”

Although most of the play is in English, it does depict the misunderstandings of people speaking different languages and a community under siege but also how different people can co-exist and even fall in love: “I think it’s about people struggling to find their version of home and what that is and what that means. You’ve got a community whose sense of home is being threatened by an incoming force and the dilemma they have is, do they go along with it or do they try and fight back and risk extinction? What is one’s identification of home? That’s what the ultimate, universal message is. It’s about community and family. I think when people come and see this, regardless of what their stance is politically or what walk of life they come from: Home is an integral part of the human condition and that’s what this play is about.”

Fra has spent much of his student and working life in England now, training in Manchester and then London where he remained to work. Is England home? “I think it is, absolutely. I love London and it’s nice the fact that I can go back to Ireland regularly and visit my family. Then you leave and you come back here and you work and you’ve got a life here. I do feel very settled here, it’s a wonderful city.”

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Returning home to his village after some time away to help Baile Beag move into the modern era, Fra’s character Owen is one he believes the diaspora will really relate to: “I actually think a lot of London Irish would be able to identify with him. He leaves Baile Beag, he goes to Dublin for six years to find a version of himself that correlates with the changing world. The world is becoming modern and he wants to fit in to it. He’s a progressive, very pragmatic character and when he comes back to Baile Beag, he’s involved in this task of changing the place names from Irish into English.

For the full interview, pick up this week’s Irish World…

Translations runs at the National Theatre until 18 December.

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