By David McShane

Sheffield Theaters (awarded Best Regional Theatre in 2013) are currently in the throes of a Brian Friel season. Friel, still alive and well in Donegal, Ireland, writes plays which overflow with appeal on every level; history, mirth and theatrical experimentation are but a few items which are frequently whipped around in his poetic concoctions. The productions I saw were of his famous play, Translations, which is now on at the Playhouse in Oxford, and Afterplay, a one-act piece performed in the Crucible’s studio.

All the plays in this season are worth seeing, just because Friel is the type of writer who writes lovely plays. Translations is set in 1833 as the British Army arrives in Ireland to create an English-language map of the country. Friel ingeniously creates a bi-lingual split onstage so that, despite the fact that all the actors are speaking in English, we recognise that some are speaking Gaelic; a device which Friel uses to great comic and heart-wrenching effect. Sarah, a character who has difficulty expressing herself, is beautifully rendered in this production. Her stuttering, almost mournful and animalistic moments of speech provided moments where Translations’concerns were expressed with a devastating simplicity.

Conversely, the Infant Prodigy is meant to be a verbose foil to Sarah.His translations of old words (like Sarah’s absent words) communicate eternal issues. Thus the ending, which makes for shiver-inducing reading on the page, should have been clearer. It is vital to make the connections more obvious in such a literary and language-focused play. The Infant Prodigy just didn’tquite shift roles and turn from an irreverent fool into the climatic commentator, who delivers a final speech where tales of epic pasts commentate all too aptly on the tumultuous present. Hopefully this power will be restored by the time the production reaches Oxford.

Afterplay, however, is brilliant all-over. First produced in just 2002, the whole action centers on two people.  Friel has Chekov’s Sonya from Uncle Vanya and Andrey from The Three Sisters meet in a cafe, 20 years after the times their original plays are set in. The cafe here is an abstract one, concocted through hanging windows which turn a dusky blue as the play proceeds. Sean Gallegher as Andrey was great, although Niamh Cusack as Sonya was incredible: a masterful performance. The intimate space of the Studio allowed each movement to register and for each expression to expose a just little more of the strong, but corroded character before us. The production as a whole was judged to perfection; each subtle strand of emotion was teased out for examination before the next revelation struck. In a play which depends on underground emotional movements and on what just-met strangers (justifiably) don’t tell one another, delicacy is required to achieve full force. And it is.

Unfortunately Afterplay has now finished its run in Sheffield but catch Translations in Oxford if you can before the end of the week.