'Translations:' Eloquent Tongues but Anguished Irish Hearts

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sat Jan 27 14:47:48 UTC 2007

>>From the NYTimes, January 26, 2007
Eloquent Tongues but Anguished Irish Hearts


Quite a few languages are spoken in Brian Friel's play 'Translations'.
There is a fair amount of Latin and Greek. Gaelic makes frequent
appearances.  And English is of course the plays official lingua franca.
But you can leave your Berlitzes and your dead-language primers at home. A
basic fluency in the workings of the human heart is all thats necessary to
absorb the beauties of Mr. Friel's tender, sad and funny play about the
difficulty of finding a home in the world, a person to share it with, and
a name to call it by. Translations has already had two major New York
productions: Off Broadway in 1981 and on Broadway in 1995. Neither made
much of a splash (it racked up just 25 performances in the more recent
run), but Translations is anything but a splashy play. A quiet ensemble
drama set in rural Ireland in 1833, it explores the troubled lives of a
handful of characters struggling to adjust to the shifting dynamics of the
world around them, which is undergoing quiet but radical change as the
hard fist of British regulation seeks to impose itself on local tradition.
Item No. 1 on Britains agenda is mapping the island and translating the
Gaelic place names into proper English, a process that has complicated
political and cultural overtones for the Irish people that resonate to
this day.

Mr. Friel's touch is delicate, his narrative artful but oblique, his
lyrical voice steeped in the lusty idioms of rural Ireland. And then
theres the Greek and Latin, intoned with joyous relish by men who like to
chase it with a spot of hard liquor. Translations is, in short, the kind
of play whose merits are likely to be lost in translation when exposed to
the bright spotlight of Broadway. And yet here it is on Broadway again,
where it opened last night at the Biltmore Theater, courtesy of the
Manhattan Theater Club (which also produced the Off Broadway production)
and the McCarter Theater Center in Princeton, N.J. On this occasion it has
wisely been entrusted to Garry Hynes, the brilliant Irish director known
for her work with the fiery young playwright Martin McDonagh and the cycle
of plays by J. M. Synge seen at the Lincoln Center Festival last summer.
Ms. Hynes has in turn wisely entrusted Mr. Friel's challenging play to a
stageful of little-known but hugely talented actors, creating an ensemble
of an extraordinarily high caliber and consistency. In their hands on
their tongues, I should say Translations is nothing short of glorious.

Mind you, the play trades in a subtle glory, the kind that steals upon you
furtively and without the help of advance PR. Last season a revival of Mr.
Friel's Faith Healer opened on Broadway with rather more clat, thanks to
the high-profile presence of Ralph Fiennes in the title role. Ms. Hyness
cast boasts no stars of that renown, indeed no stars of the renown of Mr.
Fienness estimable co-star, New Yorks beloved Cherry Jones. Nor does it
involve the kind of tour de force monologues of which Faith Healer is
composed, long, heart-searing speeches in which the characters seem to
shed their skins paragraph by paragraph, until their souls stand naked and
exposed before us. But this news may come as a relief to those who found
Faith Healer a tough sit. Translations is ultimately as emotionally
resonant as that play is and possibly just as heart-rending but its rich
cast of colorful characters, its more pointed humor and its layered
narrative make it more accessible. And nobody talks for more than two
minutes at a time, which is the blink of an eye for an Irishman onstage.

Why should they? All too often the words they speak cannot be understood
by their listeners, even when their lives depend on them. In Translations
Mr. Friel celebrates the sweet music of human speech, but the play also
explores the seriocomic truth that language divides as easily as it
unites, and sometimes fumbles and stalls just when we need it to soar.
Greek or Latin, English or Gaelic, it is the only tool we have to forge
emotional bonds, diffuse social conflict and translate inner passions into
the practices of daily living. But how paltry it can seem as a medium of
expression for all that fills our searching souls! Its eloquence and its
limits are most movingly illustrated at the climax of the first act, when
love comes upon two of the plays central characters with the speed of a
runaway horse. The Irish dairymaid Maire (Susan Lynch)  has long been
betrothed to a local, but she yearns to escape the stultifying culture of
Ballybeg (the fictional town where many of Mr.  Friel's plays are set,
here also known in Gaelic as Baile-Beag). Maire has recently announced a
bold plan to move to America, but her eye has been caught by Lieutenant
Yolland (Chandler Williams), the British soldier with no fixed place in
the world who feels strangely at home among the wary but friendly locals.
He has fallen in love with the land, the people and, poignantly, the
language it is his job to make obsolete.

He speaks scarcely a word of Gaelic, and her English is limited to a few
phrases and a useless bit of nonsense, courtesy of Aunt Mary: In Norfolk
we besport ourselves around the maypole. As they each trot out their stray
bits of each others language, Mr. Williams and Ms. Lynch who both give
enchanting performances make palpably clear the anguish and frustration of
being unable to find even rough words to communicate inchoate feelings.
As funny as it is touching, this beautifully played scene exposes the
truth and the lie in the clich that lovers need no common language to lay
bare their hearts. But almost everything in this production plays
beautifully. The boozy give and take between Hugh (Niall Buggy), the
schoolmaster who runs the humble rural schoolroom where the play takes
place, and his prized old pupil Jimmy Jack (Dermot Crowley), is
wonderfully funny, as they tease each other with etymological tests.

The mixture of tension and affection between Hughs sons is intimated with
subtle force. Manus (David Costabile), an ardent nationalist, takes over
the teaching chores when Hugh has taken a nip too much, at least until his
heart is broken and he comes to feel an exile in his beloved home. Owen
(Alan Cox) ran away to Dublin and has returned to Ballybeg as the hired
assistant to the British soldiers in their mission, which he believes can
help advance the cause of the locals, if they can be made to see it. (Now
if only he could get his employers to call him by his right name, and not
by the Anglicized Rowan.)

Mr. Friel's characters are too complexly drawn  and in this production
played  to line up neatly for or against the advent of a new language that
may bring economic benefits but will speed the erosion of an entire
culture. Hugh, that lover of dead tongues, makes the eloquent observation
that words are not immortal, and a civilization can be imprisoned in a
linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of ... fact. The
mournful corollary Mr. Friel's play gently illuminates: People are far
mortal than the words they use, and a changing civilization may leave them
adrift and alone.

You dont have to search hard for lamentable contemporary resonance in
Translations. The attempt to impose a new civilization on a subjugated
country by force looms as the background for the smaller personal dramas
that take up much of the casually drawn narrative. And the plot turns on
the disappearance of a soldier, possibly a casualty of Irish resentment of
the occupying force.

But the quiet urgency of Ms. Hyness production derives more from the
limning of the small strains tugging at the tight fabric of a community of
individuals, each bedeviled by a private struggle. The ensemble is rounded
out by Michael Fitzgerald as the impish young Doalty, who bridles more
than most at the presence of the British; Geraldine Hughes as the feisty
Bridget; Graeme Malcolm as the stern, condescending redcoat Captain
Lancey; and Morgan Hallett as Sarah, a disturbed young woman who has
trouble communicating at all, and can barely say her name.

Ms. Hyness production also benefits from evocative work from some of her
regular collaborators, the set and costume designer Francis OConnor and
the lighting designer Davy Cunningham. Mr. Cunninghams painterly lighting
is particularly integral to the nuanced contouring of the production. As
the narrative darkens in the last act, the triangle of light that formed a
bright spot in the dimness of the barn is shut out, as hope for a
promising end to almost everyones trouble begins to dim.

A despondent and tipsy Jimmy Jack and Hugh are alone in the dusk when
Maire enters and asks, Master, what does the English word always mean?

He gives her the answer in Latin, but adds: Its not a word Id start with.
Its a silly word, girl.

In fact, in the darkening gloom of the barn, in the final moments of Mr.
Friel's haunting but hugely rewarding play, it sounds like the saddest
in the English language. Or any language.


By Brian Friel; directed by Garry Hynes; sets and costumes by Francis
OConnor; lighting by Davy Cunningham; sound by John Leonard; original
music, Sam Jackson; production stage manager, Richard Costabile;
production manager, Ryan McMahon; general manager, Florie Seery; producing
artistic director for the McCarter Theater Center, Mara Isaacs; director
of production, David York. Presented by the Manhattan Theater Club, Lynne
Meadow, artistic director, and Barry Grove, executive producer; and the
McCarter Theater Center, Emily Mann, artistic director, and Jeffrey
Woodward, managing director. At the Biltmore Theater, 261 West 47th
Street; (212) 239-6200. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.

WITH: Niall Buggy (Hugh), David Costabile (Manus), Alan Cox (Owen), Dermot
Crowley (Jimmy Jack), Michael Fitzgerald (Doalty), Morgan Hallett (Sarah),
Geraldine Hughes (Bridget), Susan Lynch (Maire), Graeme Malcolm (Captain
Lancey) and Chandler Williams (Lieutenant Yolland).



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