by Brian Friel
Manhattan Theater Club, New York
Manhattan Theater Club
Translations by Brian Friel
Manhattan Theater Club, New York
The new Broadway production of Brian Friel’s Translations is a rich repast of fascinating story, powerful acting, rich language, and incisive direction. Set in rural Ireland in 1833, it dramatizes the conflict between the powerful British empire and the identity and traditional values of the Irish with language at its heart.
When the British army barges into the Irish speaking community of Baile Beag in county Donegal they cast aside the place names that have come into being over the centuries and write in anglicized versions on the maps they are creating. The maps, although this is not overtly stated, will be very useful to the army in controlling the locals. The new names, with the Irish not given a choice in the matter, will exert another kind of dominance. When a people lose the ability to name the things and places in their lives with their own language, they lose part of the very heart of their existence.
The theme of the play is this power of language. It is set in a hedge school, an informal local school where the students, mostly adults, are learning Latin and studying classical mythology. One of the students is an old fellow with more than a drop taken, whose inner life is lived in the world and language of Homer. The Irish speak Gaelic but, of course, the audience hears English and Friel, with the help of the actors and director, pulls this off flawlessly. One character, a young woman named Sarah, can hardly speak at all, and she functions as a subtly presented chorus, observing and even commenting on the action with no language at all.
Friel presents only two British characters—the gruff, cruel, by-the-book officer in charge of the mapping and naming, and his boyish, sympathetic underling who almost immediately falls under the spell of the Irish people and the place, even starting to fall in love with a lovely young woman. Susan Lynch and Chandler Williams are brilliant in these roles; a love scene, tender, passionate, and even humorous is played out between them with each speaking their own language, neither understanding the other’s words, but both communicating in a language beyond words.
The locals try to adapt, but there is an air of tragedy darkening the skies of County Donegal; violence erupts in an unexpected and heartbreaking manner. The final scene is lovely, sad, beautifully acted, and plays out as a sort of ode to language, to its power and its ability to console if not heal.
The acting is uniformly excellent, and Garry Hynes’ direction is sensitive and knowing; she was artistic director of the Abbey Theatre, and is currently artistic director of the Druid Theatre in Dublin. It is hard to imagine a better director for Brian Friel’s work. The set and costume designs of Francis O’Connor support the play perfectly; the production values of some Broadway plays are so extravagant that they can seem more memorable than the play itself, but that is not the case here. Davy Cunningham’s lighting design creates an often dark mood without the annoying problem of casting the actors’ faces in darkness. Even John Leonard’s drum-rich sound design deserves a bow.