Language is the heart and soul of "Translations," Irish playwright Brian Friel's richly observant look at the way words can bring people together, and keep them apart.
It's an extraordinary play, emotionally satisfying and intellectually bracing at the same time. And this splendid Broadway revival, a co-production of Manhattan Theatre Club and the McCarter Theatre Center in New Jersey, has been able to tap into both aspects. It expertly recreates what is the most heartbreaking of Friel's many fine dramas, and they include such sturdy works as “Dancing at Lughnasa” and “Faith Healer.”
Credit should go most prominently to director Garry Hynes. She has brought together a gifted collection of actors as well as several fine designers (specifically Francis O'Connor and Davy Cunningham), who have given the playa dark, shadow-flecked setting that suggests a world ominously on the brink of change.
We are in rural Ireland, 1833, where a florid principal named Hugh (an expansive, theatrical Niall Buggy) runs what is called "a hedge school." It's an educational academy for the locals, where they are taught, among other things, the classics.
Hugh's lame son, the embittered Manus (David Costabile), serves as his overworked and underappreciated assistant.
The students are a unique group. They include, most prominently, Jimmy Jack, a boozy older man (a delightful Dermot Crowley) with a fondness for spouting Latin and lusting after Greek goddesses. And Maire (Susan Lynch), a spirited lass who yearns for a better life, perhaps in America.
The language they speak is Gaelic, but it is threatened by English, in the form of a platoon of British soldiers, who have arrived to map the area and Anglicize its names. The army has a translator _ the principal's other son, Owen (Alan Cox), and he tries to smooth the way for an accommodation between two very different worlds.
That gap is bridged most completely by Maire and a young British lieutenant (Chandler Williams). In the evening's most dreamily romantic scene, they fall in love under a moonlit sky, even though they can't understand a word the other is saying. Lynch and Williams are just about perfect in portraying young love in full bloom. Touching and hilarious at the same time. It's one of Friel's most accomplished bits of writing.
The couple's budding relationship, with its inevitable unhappy results, precipitates the play's clash of English-Irish cultures, an antagonism that has persisted down through the years.
Yet behind the gloom, which also includes hints of the horrific potato famine that will decimate Ireland within the next decade there is a cautious celebration of communication.
As Hugh, the teacher, tells Maire, the student, when she expresses a desire to learn English: "I will provide you with the available words and the available grammar. But will that help you to interpret between privacies? I have no idea. But it's all we have."
This revival at Broadway's Biltmore Theatre is the play's third major New York production in the last 25 years. Manhattan Theatre Club presented "Translations" off-Broadway in 1981 for a limited, 48-performance run, and there was a miscast Broadway revival that disappeared quickly in 1995.
Hynes, who runs the Druid Theatre Company in Galway, Ireland, has tapped into something special here. It's similar to what she did with "Druidsynge," her remarkable marathon presentation of all the plays of another Irish master, John Millington Synge, seen last summer in New York.
For both authors, comedy and tragedy exist side by side in the special, very specific worlds they create. These worlds are buoyed by a remarkable poetry, language full of laughter, love and sorrow. In "Translations," Hynes and company have captured it all.
The power of language and the struggle to communicate are themes that echo throughout Brian Friel's "Translations."
This portrait of a Gaelic-speaking town begins with a near-mute woman triumphantly speaking her name for the first time. It ends with her village stripped of its identity, if not a voice in determining its own fate.
Friel's drama, which made its U.S. debut 25 years ago at Manhattan Theatre Club, is by turns folksy and earthy and poetic and mythic. This soulful revival, which opened last night at the Biltmore Theatre in a co-production of MTC and the McCarter Theatre Center, fully taps its treasures.
Credit the assured, unfussy direction by Tony winner Garry Hynes ("The Beauty Queen of Leenane") and her crackerjack American, Irish and English cast, which has no weak link.
The story is set in the fictional Irish town of Baile Beag (Ballybeg) in 1833. A British brigade arrives to redo a map of the region, in accordance with a Royal decree that all Irish place names must be translated into English. The seemingly benign mission gradually reveals darker implications.
The action is set in an old gray barn now used as a school by the scholarly and hard-drinking Hugh (Niall Buggy, who anchors the production) and his well-meaning son Manus (David Costabile). Hugh's long-absent son Owen (Alan Cox) comes home from Dublin to work as an interpreter for the British. The play's conceit is that the audience understands everything, but the Irish and English characters can't grasp what each other says.
The device works brilliantly when Bally-beg lass Maire (Susan Lynch), who is eager to learn English so she can go to America, and Lt. Yolland (Chandler Williams), a British soldier smitten with Ireland, try to express their love.
They woo each other with names of Irish towns. It's the play's best scene - deeply funny, touching and, ultimately tragic, as their relationship leads to a disastrous and unresolved tangle of events.
Graeme Malcolm, Michael FitzGerald, Morgan Hallett, Geraldine Hughes and Dermot Crowley, a standout as a tipsy local devoted to Greek words and goddesses, round out the excellent ensemble in this engaging story about a long-ago culture clash that speaks eloquently to today's world.
Words are the very substance of Brian Friel's play "Translations."
To put it simply: It is a play wrapped up in a web of languages (all spoken in English) and cradled in a metaphor. Well, perhaps that wasn't so simple. Neither is the play.
Friel's fascinatingly flawed "Translations" shows English army engineers in early 19th-century Ireland systematically mapping and renaming – Anglicizing - the Irish landscape.
The setting is County Donegal, 1833: 12 years before the potato famine. Friel introduces us to a so-called "hedge school," run by the aged but commanding Hugh (one of Ireland's finest, Niall Buggy) assisted by his sulky son Manus (David Costabile).
The school teaches Irish-speaking local children the rudiments of the Three R's, but not, on any account, English.
Hugh's elder son, likable Owen (Alan Cox), is translating Gaelic documents for the English soldiers. Among the English party is impressionable Lieutenant Yolland (Chandler Williams), who falls in love with the Irish countryside, the Gaelic language (which he cannot speak) and the Irish people - in particular the spirited Maire (Susan Lynch), already planning to escape to America.
The love affair is played out in a magical scene that is not only the highlight of the play, but also one of the great love scenes in English-speaking drama. She speaks virtually no English, he even less Gaelic - but they communicate their wild rhapsodic feeling for one another by repeating, with heart-bursting sincerity, a laundry list of Gaelic place names to express their inexpressible love.
It's a dramatic moment - beautifully played by Williams and Lynch - that could stop "Romeo and Juliet" in its tracks. It can't, however, overcome the play's ramshackle structure, and one of those terribly Irish, O'Casey-style endings that leaves you up in the air with a sense of loss, without knowing quite what has happened.
It's a difficult play to produce, and this version by the Manhattan Theatre Club - staged by Tony-winning Irish director Garry Hynes with evocative designs by Francis O'Connor and superlative lighting by Davy Cunningham - is better than most in uncovering playwright Friel's elusive inner poetry.
We also have some grand performances, best of all Buggy's boisterous, near tragic Hugh.
Yet despite many beauties displayed, the play's broken-backed problems are here left quite a distance from solution.
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 play’s official lingua franca.
From left, David Costabile and Alan Cox as Irishmen and Chandler Williams as a British soldier smitten with a country he has come to change.
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 that’s 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 Britain’s 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 there’s 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 éclat, thanks to the high-profile presence of Ralph Fiennes in the title role. Ms. Hynes’s cast boasts no stars of that renown, indeed no stars of the renown of Mr. Fiennes’s estimable co-star, New York’s 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 play’s 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 other’s 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 cliché 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 Hugh’s 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 more mortal than the words they use, and a changing civilization may leave them adrift and alone.
You don’t 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. Hynes’s 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. Hynes’s production also benefits from evocative work from some of her regular collaborators, the set and costume designer Francis O’Connor and the lighting designer Davy Cunningham. Mr. Cunningham’s 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 everyone’s 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: “It’s not a word I’d start with. It’s 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 word in the English language.
Or any language.
Among the chief distinctions of Garry Hynes' marathon staging last season of the complete works of J.M. Synge was the profound cultural identity she brought to plays both major and minor, refortifying their already deep-rooted foundations in Irish history, language, spirit and character. That quality makes her an ideal director for Brian Friel's 1980 play "Translations," a passionately felt account of the 19th-century erosion of Irish national culture by colonizing British forces. Through expert modulation of tone, Hynes' superb production conveys a creeping sense of violation and loss, the drama's resonance amplified by its sobering echoes in the contemporary world.
Last seen on Broadway in a tepidly received, short-lived 1995 run directed by Howard Davies and starring Brian Dennehy, Dana Delany and Rufus Sewell, the play is co-produced here by Manhattan Theater Club and McCarter Theater Center in Princeton, N.J., where it was staged last fall. MTC has a long association with the work, having produced the U.S. premiere Off Broadway 26 years ago.
Like the litany of place names that cast a hypnotic spell in Friel's "Faith Healer," seen last season on Broadway, the names of townships take on weighted significance here. "Translations" is set in the playwright's mythical County Donegal town of Baile Beg in 1833, when a detachment of British Royal Engineers has been assigned to draw a new map of the area, standardizing the confusion of Gaelic place names into the King's English -- starting with Ballybeg. The erasure of language is artfully equated by Friel with the stripping away of the soul.
Principal action takes place in a rustic barn that serves as a Hedge School. Its adult students perch on milking stools while the self-inflated master, Hugh (Niall Buggy), expounds on the finer points of Latin and Greek, heavily imbibing whatever booze is available. Hugh's lame son Manus (David Costabile) greets the arrival of the British Redcoats with consternation, the presence of his prodigal brother Owen (Alan Cox) as their interpreter doing little to reassure him. But in the playful first act, most of the locals appear to regard the intruders with perplexed amusement, not as a serious threat.
Friel's the most Chekhovian of Irish playwrights, and his dramas invariably carry a doleful sting, contained here in his depiction of the Irish as both innocent victims of cultural rape and heedless fools. Making light of the significance of a name -- down to shrugging off the fact his English employers insist on calling him Roland -- Owen finesses his translations to pass off the colonialist mission as beneficial to the interests of Ireland. And the locals appear almost willing to buy it.
Until late in the action, the ripples of resistance are felt only in some mildly subversive mischief, or in enigmatic references to the Donnelly twins, local lads who may or may not be responsible for running interference against the Brits.
There's a subtle irony in the fact that while most of the characters speak only Irish, the dialogue is almost entirely in English, reminding us that the cultural imperialism of which the play speaks runs deep.
Physically, too, the imbalance of power is made evident by the casting of Graeme Malcolm as stiff-backed British commanding officer Captain Lancey and Chandler Williams as young topographer Lt. George Yolland. In their pristine uniforms, the two lanky beanpoles literally tower over the Irish in their ragged, mud-stained clothes.
A swooning, sensitive romantic, George commits the dangerous transgression of falling in love with the people and country being colonized. He's enchanted by the place and its magical names. Most of all, he's captivated by Maire (Susan Lynch), a local beauty long attached to Manus but drawn to the promise of a new world beyond Ireland.
There's an amusing dismissal here of England as a xenophobic, hermetic culture and Ireland as one connected to the classical world, continental Europe, folklore and mythology. ("I'm afraid we're not familiar with your literature, Lieutenant," says Hugh when George invokes Wordsworth. "We feel closer to the warm Mediterranean. We tend to overlook your island.") But the swipe is double-edged, with the Irish fascination for dead languages branding them a retrograde people.
The play contains a moonlit love scene staggering in its poignant sensuality, beguilingly played by Lynch and Williams as two people without a common language, communicating through awkward mime and guessing games. When it's revealed the next day that George has gone missing, Hynes masterfully negotiates the shift from tender romance to brutal reality as Lancey outlines the consequences if information is not forthcoming, this time with Owen translating word for word.
Through historical metaphor, Friel's fine play quietly but powerfully acknowledges a modern world blighted by culturally impoverishing invasions, ethnic cleansing, sectarian division and incomprehension far beyond that of mere language barriers.
The drama's eloquence and the richness of its language are paired to effective contrast with Hynes' earthy, vigorous approach. The cast tramples, often barefoot, over the dirt floor of designer Francis O'Connor's immense concrete-walled barn, given shadowy textures by Davy Cunningham's lighting.
The actors navigate a seamless progression from the humorous, at times almost broad touch of the early scenes through the steadily amplified gravity of the unfolding situation in which the volatile result of mixing love and politics inevitably is violence. Fully inhabiting their characters with unfussy naturalness, the cast has no weak link. Lynch is especially moving, while Buggy achieves a clumsy dignity and depth with a character given to pompous discourse. Dermot Crowley matches him as an unlikely scholar with an affinity for the ancient world.
But perhaps the most touching characterization is the one with the fewest words. Thanks to the painstaking attentions of Manus, the speech-impaired Sarah (Morgan Hallett) has learned to say her name. But when the full extent of British rule is articulated, her tentative voice is the first to be silenced. As one of the characters quotes early on from Tacitus, "It's easier to stamp out learning than to recall it."