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Culture Northern Ireland

Make no bones about it, Truth in Translation is a fantastic piece of musical theatre. Boasting Grade-A performances from every member of the 11-strong cast, a sharp script and terrific music composed by Hugh Masekela, one of South Africa’s most acclaimed musicians, it’s worth paying the ticket price to hear the earth-stopping voice of Baby Cele alone. A night’s thought-provoking and moving entertainment.

But Truth in Translation is far more ambitious than that. A ‘project’ as much as a play, it premiered in August 2006 in Rwanda. As artistic director Michael Lessac explains: ‘We are taking this play to conflict and healing zones around the world where people still live with, or still might not be able to let go of, thoughts of victimhood, entitlement, vengeance and denial.’

Truth in Translation has certainly come to the right place then – Healing Zone NI, where victimhood has been turned into an art form.

The play revolves around the testimonies of victims and perpetrators of apartheid to South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission, chaired by archbishop Tutu. We follow the lives of the interpreters who translate the business of the commission into the country’s 11 official languages.

A cross-section of South African life, the interpreters include a former ANC soldier, the gay son of a brigadier in the security forces, a Zulu minister and middle class white girl. Told at the start not to become involved, that ‘personal sympathies and matters of the heart have no place here’, as more and more ‘hectic stories’ pass through their lips the ability of the interpreters to remain dispassionate is shattered.

Like any team of workers caught up in extraordinary events a strong group dynamic is forged and interpersonal relationships wax and wane. Some of the interpreters try to block out the testimonies, some feel that they are living the harrowing events as the words flow through them.

Actual footage from the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, which was broadcast in South Africa and around the world, plays on a backdrop of coloured and white shirts but the performances are so engaging it’s scarcely needed.

The mixture of theatre and song is entirely credible. In fact, song seems an appropriate and natural way of expressing emotions that are almost too complicated and painful for spoken words.

There are plenty of parallels with Conflict NI – people being blown to smithereens, torture, brutal murders, the public lynching of ‘informers’ etc etc ad nauseum. The tagline of ‘a just war’ being used to justify heinous atrocities is also depressingly familiar. Parallels too with Healing Zone NI – lies, dissembling, abrogation of responsibility, a lack of remorse, history warped and rewritten.

In effect, Truth in Translation poses the same question that Nelson Mandela asked his country back in 1994: ‘Can you forgive the past to survive the future?’

To push the matter further, the Lyric has exhibits on this theme, including a ‘forgiveness wall’ in the foyer on which people are invited to scrawl their thoughts: ‘I forgive everyone.’ ‘I forgive children not adults.’ ‘Sorry mom.’ ‘Sorry Katie for six years ago.’

Truth in Translation acknowledges that the Truth & Reconciliation Commission barely scratched the surface and ends on a story, which like the majority of victims’ stories, wasn’t told. But at least the very public attempt at reconciliation was a start and for the victims who did take part much more than that.

Of course, Northern Ireland isn’t going to get a Truth & Reconciliation Commission. Our victims won’t get a chance to tell their story, to bring their pain into a public arena, to let their dead speak. The politicians/perpetrators here are conspicuously lacking the magnanimity of a Mandela.

Even imagining a similar piece of theatre being made about the Northern Ireland peace process is difficult. It would never get past the first rehearsal, and petty arguments over how much of the singing should be in Irish, how much in Ulster Scots.

As I left the theatre I felt the urge to write a line from Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces on the forgiveness wall: ‘Neither repentance nor forgiveness can erase an immoral act.’

Or as Truth in Translation had it: ‘A human body’s bones cannot just disappear.’

So maybe forgiveness doesn’t really matter. It’s more a question of victims being big enough to live with perpetrators in their midst. And there wasn’t room on the wall anyway. Too many stories, too much forgiveness needed.