by Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
by Brian Friel
Directed by Garry Hynes
West 47 Street
Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club
Reviewed February 6, 2007 by Margaret Croyden
Brian Friel is one of Ireland's most famous playwrights. His resume is huge--too huge to list here. So are his awards: a Tony for his magnificent "Dancing at Lughnasa," a Lifetime Achievement Award from the "Irish Times" and best of all, favorable reviews for most of his work. Only last season his "Faith Healer," a revival with Ralph Fiennes and Cherry Jones was a huge success on Broadway. Brian Friel is well loved in New York, so that theater goers looked forward to his revival of "Translations."
And I don't think they were disappointed. "Translations" is a serious play about British imperialism and its domination of Ireland and the Irish language. The scene is set in a dreary makeshift school in a small town of Baile Beag/Ballybeg in County Donegal. A small group of young people are trying to become educated. Their teacher is a serious drunk who is fluent in English and knows a good deal of history and literature, especially the ancient world of the Greeks. His sidekick, a bedraggled old man (also a drunk) can quote from "Ulysses" and other famous literary and historical figures. The Irish people supposedly speak Gaelic (which we hear as English) but the British occupiers who enter into the lives of this group of Irishmen speak only English. The teacher has two sons; one takes over the teaching chores occasionally when his father is too drunk and the other, educated in English, is hired by the British to remap the town according to British specifications and he willingly tackles this job, unaware of the consequences. There are also three young women, a deaf mute painfully learning to speak; an enchanting beauty who longs to escape to America; and the third who is satisfied to settle down with the locals. Into this group come two British officers, one is obviously brutal and the other, a sweet young man who, in his naivete, falls in love with the beautiful woman, although they cannot communicate: she speaks Irish and he English. Yet they sense each other. And when this meeting is enacted, it is one of the enchanting scenes in the play. That this love affair does not end happily is not surprising. Yet it encompasses the basic meaning in the play: love is beyond language and can be felt silently. On the other hand, language is communication, a given, that cannot be separated from one's life and country. A lack of communication brings with it not only dislocation, disruptions, and unforseen difficulties but a loss of our essential being.
Clearly the British, with its long time domination of the Irish, are not only cruel occupiers, but contemptuously want to destroy (or change) not only the map of Ireland and its established towns, but the Irish language as well.
Brian Fiel writes on many levels. Dramatically this play is more interesting than his "Faith Healer," a play with three monologues that ultimately became static. "Translations" has more action, more drama, less philosophy, and more human emotion. With a season of talky, pretensions plays from London, Brian Friel knows how to write a serious play about politics and history without lecturing us. He dramatize situations, be they historical or political. The characters in "Translations" are real people; their hardships and motivations are transparent and the overall arc of the play is dramatically constructed.
"Translations" works not only because of the playwright but because of the unique talent of the director Garry Hynes. A native of Ireland, she has had a successful career directing there. This is obvious--the feel of the play is absolutely authentic. I suppose it take a real Irish person to deliver this kind of production.
As for the actors: a well coordinated company work together as a team, something rarely seen on Broadway. One standout is the well known Niall Buggy in the lead role of the teacher. His characterization of an Irishman who loves knowledge and loves the bottle as well is seamless; he lives on the stage as if it were his real life. The rest of the cast are quite remarkable, in particular Morgan Hallen. As the deaf mute who painfully struggles with speech and who is responsible for the denouement (which I can't reveal here) is particularly moving. Without any dialogue she has the most difficult role: her handling of it is an artistic accomplishment
Watching these actors at work was a pleasure. Particularly admirable in "Translations" are those long wonderful quotes from the literary greats eloquently delivered by Neill Buggy who personifies the Irishmen's love of language.
Every once in a while a production comes around which encompasses everything the theater should be. "Translations" is such a production. Hurray!
Margaret Croyden's latest book is "Conversations with Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
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