Graeme Malcolm, Susan Lynch, Alan Cox and Chandler Williams
(photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Brian Friel’s Translations was first produced in New York in 1981 with Barnard Hughes and Daniel Gerroll. It turned up again in 1995, this time on Broadway starring Brain Dennehy, Rufus Sewell, Donal Donnelly and Dana Delaney and lasted a mere 25 performances. Now the Manhattan Theater Club, which presented the American premiere 25 years ago, has chosen to revive it in a co-production with McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton, with Irish stage stars Niall Buggy and Susan Lynch, at Broadway’s Biltmore Theatre.
This is a difficult play partly because it is about language, partly because it is nearly plotless and also because it requires a knowledge of Anglo-Irish history. Its theme is the barrier created by language and its miscommunication as well as the clash of cultures that occur when an occupying army speaks a different language than of the occupied country. The current production doesn’t catch fire until the second half when the temperature is raised to a discernable degree. The play also has no resolution, requiring the audience members to connect the dots for themselves.
Set in Friel’s fictional town of Baile Beag/Ballybeg, it recounts what happens in 1833 when the English Royal Engineers descend on the small rural village to make the first Ordinance Survey. In order to standardize the maps, the Gaelic place names are to be rendered into English. The characters speak Greek, Latin, Gaelic and English. However, so that the audience can understand the play, the Irish and English characters all speak English but fail to understand each other. Most of the Greek and Latin quotations are translated by other characters on stage.
What happens when a conquering army stamps out the native language? How do you feel when all the places you have ever known are given new names? When a dominant culture imposes its will on that of a subjugated land? These questions are relevant in our world of invasions and genocide. However, for Americans this is rather remote. Except for the Native Americans, as a nation we have never experienced this since our country’s birth. Indeed, with English the language of commerce today, and with Hollywood movies dominating the world market, it is we who have imposed our culture on that of other countries. As a result, Translations must be much more meaningful in Ireland as it not only deals with local history but probes wounds that are still not healed.
The play unfolds at a hedge school, an indigenous local Irish form of popular education for 200 years taught in the Gaelic vernacular where such subjects as mathematics, Latin and Greek were promulgated. Manus who assists his father in running the school for no pay has not been able to convince his girl friend Maire to marry him without money and without a job. His more successful brother Owen has just returned home after seven years away at Dublin to be Gaelic translator to the Royal Engineers surveying the county. He is assisting young Lieutenant Yolland, an orthographer, in reassigning English names to the Gaelic places. Yolland immediately feels at home in Ballybeg even though he doesn’t know a word of Gaelic. The play’s deepest irony is that by its end he may be a sacrifice to the miscommunication between the English and the Irish.
Director Garry Hynes has impeccable credentials for this type of drama. She staged Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West in both London’s West End and on Broadway. This past summer her production of DruidSynge , the complete plays of John Millington Synge performed on one bill, was a critical success when it appeared at the Lincoln Center Festival. She was artistic director of Ireland’s Abbey Theatre from 1990-1994. She is artistic director and co-founder of Galway’s Druid Theatre. And she is the first woman ever to win the Tony Award for direction.
Granted she has made the play funnier and more human than it has been in previous New York productions. Aside from Susan Lynch’s passionate performance as the heroine Maire, caught between loyalty and desire, none of the other actors are particularly charismatic. Hynes does create a very credible sense of community: while we watch the comings and goings at Hugh’ ;s hedge school housed in his disused barn we see the easy interrelationships between the villagers and the tensions that run among the discontented youth. We also feel the growing hostility of the Irish for their English interlopers.
Hynes has obtained colorful portraits from some of her cast that are almost Dickensian in their eccentricities: Dermot Crowley’s elderly Jimmy Jack who converses with the goddess Athena in the original Greek but never bathes, and Michael Fitzgerald’s young Doalty to whom all things are ripe for a joke. Morgan Hallett is particularly effective as Sarah whose speech impediment is so bad that she usually communicates by gestures. The award winning star of Friel’s Aristocrats , Niall Buggy is also memorable as the drunken scholar that all look up to except his own sons but he is on stage so rarely as to be a minor character. Unfortunately, Alan Cox as the returning Owen and Chandler Williams as the English lieutenant who are on stage the majority of the time are bland and nondescript.
The play is staged in Francis O’Connor’s huge, almost colorless box-like setting which is lit by Davy Cunningham to keep a good deal of it in shadow. It is similar to O’Connor’s unit set for the six plays in DruidSynge, obviously a style for which Hynes is partial. Friel’s Translations, set in the same village in which his more popular plays Philadelphia, Here ICome! and Dancing at Lughnasa take place, is a challenging, uncompromising play. It may be a stretch for American audiences to whom references like “the liberator Daniel O’ Connell” mean little.
Biltmore Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or http://www.telecharge.com