Brian Friel's "Translations," a parable about the impossibility of understanding between the English and the Irish, is, I'm afraid, easier to understand as a parable about the pitfalls of translating London success to New York.
This production is based on a successful recent London revival, of which a haunting set, a powerful actor and an English director have been imported. The ongoing difficulties between England and Ireland probably gave the play an immediacy in London that it lacks here.
Set in 1833 in rural Ireland, "Translations" presents the British at first as a seemingly neutral force. British soldiers have come to prepare maps in which ancient Gaelic place names will be given English equivalents. The "natives," of course, know the mapmaking will eventually have military consequences.
The linguistic impasses the two nations face are a poetic way to dramatize the deeper gulf that divides them. The encounter begins with good will but turns into disaster when a well-meaning British soldier (Michael Cumpsty) falls in love with an Irish girl (Dana Delany).
Like many of Friel's plays, "Translations" has a Chekhovian lack of action. It depends a great deal on mood, which is difficult for actors to convey. A much easier thing for actors to do is accents; since most of the actors here don't even handle that well, it's not surprising that mood is minimal.
One of the conceits of the play is that even though everyone uses English, we are to pretend that the Irish characters are speaking Gaelic (still common in rural Ireland in the early 19th century) and cannot understand English. If the actors' accents were more distinct, the comedy of their inability to understand each other would be clearer.
More important, we are to understand that a large percentage of Irish rustics, at least in this play, are engaged in studying Greek and Latin, which does convey the Irish hunger for poetry. Donal Donnelly, in a small and enigmatic role as an aging reader of Homer, is a past master at this.
Brian Dennehy, alas, is not. As a teacher, Dennehy has the breezy swagger of an old-fashioned beat cop, but does not suggest a Celtic seer, which is what his character is. The play's conclusion, a long "aria," requires a technique and a musical voice he simply does not have.
The strongest performance is that of the English actor Rufus Sewell, as the one local who warily befriends the Brits. His work suggests that British director Howard Davies (who directed the awful recent revival of "My Fair Lady") may have better success with British actors than Americans.
Cumpsty and Delany are both strong, but seldom do any of the actors get beyond the workmanlike.
For an old play to stir us, we must have a sense of urgency Davies has not instilled in this cast.
Language as an instrument of culture and survival - that is the proposition lying at the heart of Brian Friel's many-splendored and many-layered play "Translations," which opened last night at the Plymouth Theater.
Friel, who nowadays is probably best known for his luminous "Dancing at Lughnasa," wrote "Translations" 15 years ago - significantly, it was the first production of Field Day, a company he co-founded with Stephen Rea in war-torn Derry, Northern Ireland.
And this strange and lingering play is never quite what it seems - rather like the English occupation of Ireland, of which it is, in large part, a cloudy parable.
The scene is a small village in County Donegal in 1833, and the play is set in a "hedge-school" - a rural evening school, typical of the times, that were the result of the English banning Catholic education. These informal schools taught Greek and Latin together with the 3 Rs - the language being Gaelic.
One of the many joys of the play is the manner in which Friel opens up with a scene of eccentric Irish stereotypes, who could have wandered in from imitations of Synge and O'Casey, or even a John Ford movie, and slowly changes the focus until finally we have a picture of tragedy, devastation and chaos.
And it all started so sweetly, and there were such good intentions along the way, even love and understanding.
The action is easily explained. A party of redcoats have come to this part of Ireland to undertake an ordnance survey and make a map. This will involve - and such Friel explains to us are the ways of imperialist colonialism - the Gaelic place names being Anglicized to something more acceptable to the English tongue.
One of the English junior officers - a lieutenant employed as a toponymist, giving names to places - falls in love with a fair colleen, and after a dance and whirlwind courtship, he disappears, leaving the young woman totally bereft.
And now the once friendly cartographers are transformed into an army of occupation, threatening wholesale and indiscriminate reprisals on livestock and property if the lieutenant, presumably murdered, is not returned. But, as in every good play, the story doesn't tell half of the story.
Friel has called his play "Translations" with good reason. For the play's key characters are not the star cross'd lover, but the learned, pedantic, drunker and profoundly perceptive old master of the hedge school, and his prodigal son, who has returned with the soldiers as a translator, and literally bridges the two cultures.
Language, language, language. As Hamlet might have said. Or, as Friel's schoolmaster puts it: "civilization can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the language of fact." Or, as he later points out: "It is not the literal past, the facts of history that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language."
And, while on the subject of language, note Friel's masterly stroke of making it seem as if the Irish are speaking Gaelic. It's a wonderful trick, for in fact all the actors speak English (with the odd bit in Latin and Greek), yet you are in no doubt as to whether the characters on stage are hearing English or Gaelic.
This device is transformed into pure theatrical magic when the two lovers express their love, each not comprehending the actual words the other is saying whereas we, or course, understand both perfectly. Poignant and potent.
The play was originally given in New York very persuasively by the Manhattan Theater Club back in 1981, and the present staging by Howard Davies is every bit as effective, even though the play sits more happily on smaller stages.
But Davies has shrewdly placed his dramatic emphasis on the teacher (a masterly, blustering performance by Brian Dennehy) and his wayward and ambiguous younger son, the translator, magnificently played by the evasive yet charismatic Rufus Sewell.
Donal Donnelly brilliantly contributes a lovely spot of Abbey-Irish for us to savor, Rob Campbell is touchingly surly as a crippled Irish patriot, and as the lovers grabbing at a fugitive happiness, Dana Delany and particularly Michael Cumpsty, as the charmingly enthusiastic officer, seem perfect symbols of Anglo-Irish love and agony.
Like most of Friel's plays "Translations" is almost best appreciated for its after-taste. It stays with you long past the curtain fall, offering queries for the heart, sustenance for the mind.
Here is a play with a face as they say, like the map of Ireland. Miss it at your loss.
Brian Friel's "Translations" is a big, meditative, far more interesting play than you're likely to realize from the flat, mostly uninspired production that opened last night at the Plymouth Theater.
Though not neatly made, "Translations" is a period play of ideas, about language in particular, that have haunting resonance in our own era, when the manipulation of linguistics shapes virtually every aspect of our lives. The cast is an able one. The impulse to produce the play is worthy, but the text deserves better.
Consider a deceptively funny scene near the end that more or less epitomizes Mr. Friel's methods and concerns. The place is an abandoned barn that's used as a schoolhouse in a rural Irish-speaking community in County Donegal. The time is 1833, 11 years before the catastrophic potato famine but at the start of serious English efforts to eradicate the Irish language and, in effect, to destroy Ireland's past. The real troubles are just beginning.
Hugh, a windy old schoolmaster who speaks Greek, Latin and English as well as Irish, turns away from the grim realities of 1833 to recall a happier time: the spring morning in 1798 when he and his pal Jimmy Jack (who lies on the floor, having passed out from drink) set off to join Wolfe Tone's rebellion against the English.
"Two young gallants with pikes across their shoulders and the 'Aeneid' in their pockets" marched the 23 miles to Glenties in one day. "And it was there," says Hugh grandly, "in Phelan's pub, that we got homesick for Athens, just like Ulysses." The two men turned around and came home to Baile Beag.
There was a war, at least the start of a war, but somehow Hugh and Jimmy Jack never made it. Hugh, high on the memory of 1798, toasts the snoozing Jimmy Jack. "Confusion," he says, "is not an ignoble condition."
Confusion may not be an ignoble condition, but when it becomes chronic, it seems more like fatal lassitude.
This is a lovely, sorrowful, bitter scene, integral to what "Translations" is all about. Yet in this production, staged by Howard Davies, the English director responsible for the recent skimpy revival of "My Fair Lady," it somehow seems no more or less important than all the other moments of folkish local color, melodrama, poetry and philosophy. Indeed, this production is so uninflected that at the preview performance I attended, many people in the audience weren't sure the play was over until the house lights came up and the actors took their bows.
Although Hugh seems to be the principal role, he's not a thoroughly realized central character. He's part of a group of sketches for characters that include his elder, lame, embittered son Manus, also a schoolmaster; his younger, more practical son Owen; the sweetly daft, Homer-quoting Jimmy Jack, and Lieutenant Yolland, a romantic young English officer who falls disastrously in love with Ireland and with a local beauty named Maire.
At the start of the play, Owen returns home after six years in Dublin. He's now working as a translator for Yolland and the English army engineers who are mapping Ireland and, in the process, Anglicizing the Gaelic place names. In the course of several days, the liaison between the English officer and Maire sets off a furious chain reaction that effectively describes Ireland's turbulent history for the next century.
"Translations" is not an easy play to stage. It has more characters than Mr. Friel has time to develop, and the relationships between Hugh and his two sons are left largely unexplored. Most of the significant events take place offstage. It's also a play in which the narrative is less compelling than the subtext, which is about the power of language to give definition not only to thought, but also to history, ethnic identity and national aspiration.
"Translations" has much of the lyricism of Mr. Friel's "Philadelphia, Here I Come" and "Dancing at Lughnasa," but it's both prolix and oblique, with no easily apparent shape. It's a play that demands careful orchestration to give it focus, which is what I most vividly remember about the 1981 Manhattan Theater Club production, directed by Joe Dowling, in which Barnard Hughes gave a superb performance as Hugh.
Mr. Davies's approach to "Translations" is brisk and no-nonsense, as if his sole responsibility were to put the play on the stage with some coherence, but without having to worry too much about the details. The cast of American, Irish and English actors is a potentially good one, headed by Brian Dennehy as Hugh and Donal Donnelly as the rummy old Jimmy Jack. Yet the production never quite comes together.
At least part of the confusion stems from the various acting styles and accents. Mr. Dennehy can be a commanding stage presence, as he was when he played Walter Burns in the memorable Long Wharf Theater production of "The Front Page" in the early 1980's. Here, he has physical heft and determination, but he doesn't appear to have any blood relationship to his sons or ethnic connections to the other characters. The surface bluster is the complete performance.
The usually expert Mr. Donnelly sounds the way Jimmy Jack should, but under a lot of whiskers, he looks less like a boozy Irish eccentric and scholar than a particularly unkempt rabbi. He's a garrulous sight gag.
The production's best performance is Rufus Sewell's in what is probably the play's most complex, most successfully written role. He's Owen, the only character in the play who comes to understand what the English occupation means and, as a result, reluctantly takes the action that his father and Jimmy Jack both avoided for the prettiest of alibis. Anyone lucky enough to have seen the original production of "Arcadia" at the Royal National Theater in London will remember Mr. Sewell's fine, intense performance as the tutor.
Rob Campbell is good in the sparely written role of the elder son, Manus. Tall, gangly Michael Cumpsty plays the doomed Yolland, and Dana Delany, late of television's "China Beach," appears as the red-headed Maire. The production's most moving scene is theirs: a mutual seduction, late at night, in which each speaks a language incomprehensible to the other, winding up with their exchanging Gaelic place-names as endearments. Amelia Campbell plays Sarah, a young woman with a speech problem that I still can't identify, although I've seen the play twice and read the text once.
Even Ashley Martin-Davis's set, a representation of the barn where Hugh conducts his classes, is misleading. It's stylized in a way to suggest that it has no roof, that is, until characters rush in to get out of the rain.
If everything else were better, you wouldn't notice such casual inconsistencies. In this production, they are nonbiodegradable: they accumulate.
As a star-driven vehicle for Broadway, Brian Friel's 1980 "Translations" is an odd, not to say risky, choice. True, the play's centerpiece is one of the most touching love scenes in the modern repertoire. But it's a relatively brief interlude in a play whose deeply felt themes are worked through haltingly and with maddening obscurantism. Though Friel has continued to go his own dramatic way with more or less success in such haunting works as "Dancing at Lughnasa" and "Wonderful Tennessee," a fine London revival two years ago and this production suggest he hasn't felt compelled to address the problems that make "Translations" such a challenge to love. Stars or no stars, it's going to be a tough sell on Broadway.
The play is also overshadowed by its inspired American premiere in 1981 at the Manhattan Theater Club, staged by the Abbey Theater's Joe Dowling.
The play is set in Friel's beloved fictional town of Ballybeg in 1833, when the British Royal Engineers have been deployed to map the district and standardize -- i.e., Anglicize -- local place names; until now, in fact, the town has been known by its Gaelic name, Baile Beag.
Hugh (Brian Dennehy), the hard-drinking, hard-driving Greek- and Latin-loving master of a country hedge-school, has raised two sons; the younger, Manus (Rob Campbell) is set to follow in his footsteps after marrying his childhood sweetheart, Maire (Dana Delany). The elder, the prodigal Owen (Rufus Sewell), returns after a six-year absence, having been hired by the British to serve as translator and to smooth the way for a transition that will not, as it turns out , proceed smoothly at all.
That the cultural identity of these poor farmers is wholly wrapped up in their language, and that they will shed blood to retain it, is the heart of the matter in "Translations," and the timing -- the years leading up to the Great Hunger -- makes the story all the more compelling. Friel takes it a step further by having Maire fall in love with Lt. Yolland (Michael Cumpsty), who is himself unexpectedly drawn to the language his purpose it is to eradicate.
In a scene of throat-clutching poignancy, the two express their love for each other, he in English, she in Gaelic, neither understanding what the other is saying (though it is all spoken in English), until at last Yolland begins speaking the Gaelic place names he has grown to love, she repeating them softly, like a chant, as they fall into one another's arms.
Delany is the production's big disappointment, in part because she's surrounded by actors with a lot more stage seasoning; she gives a girlish, acting-school performance, pouting and posing and assuming the kind of anticipatory posturing that suggest an actor waiting for a cue rather than listening to a line.
Some of that falls away in the love scene, in part because Cumpsty is so generous an actor and such a pleasure himself to watch, his homey, lima bean face an endless source of expressive surprises. But when Delany interacts with the play's two other women -- Amelia Campbell, as a near mute, and Miriam Healy-Louie, as a spirited neighbor and student -- the shortcomings are thrown into starker relief.
Sewell is perfect as the rakish Owen, who takes a job on a lark and realizes, too late, his terrible mistake. Dennehy is no one's idea of a man worn down by 35 years of hard life and harder liquor, and too little disappointment registers when Hugh learns that a promised position has been given to someone else. Yet there's an appealing virility in the performance that considerably lightens up an evening that otherwise progresses, in Howard Davies' workmanlike staging, merely efficiently.
There are other welcome sparks from Donal Donnelly, as Jimmy Jack, the senior student and even greater lover than Hugh of Homer and Virgil; from Rob Campbell's edgy Manus and David Herlihy's eager-to-please Doalty, another student.
Ashley Martin-Davis' setting is aptly plain until it opens up for the lovely out-of-doors scene between Maire and the lieutenant, and Chris Parry's lighting -- always an essential with a Friel play, is just beautiful, throwing grays and golds across the earthy scene. Joan Bergin's costumes, too, are exactly right.
But in the end, Friel fiddles away the tension, so carefully built by the intermission, during a final act in which Ballybeg literally burns. The comic relief offered by the drunken Hugh and Jimmy Jack as all hell is breaking loose around them dissipates everything; it seems cheap and forced. We've been promised much more, and the disappointment is palpable.