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'' Translations'' by Brian Friel: Two views

by Lucy Komisar
by Margareth Croyden



Written by Brian Friel.
Directed by Garry Hynes.
Manhattan Theatre Club at Biltmore Theatre, 261 W 47th St.
Opened Jan. 25, 2007.
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar Jan. 28, 2007.
Closes March 11, 2007.

The Manhattan Theater Club's revival of Brian Friel's 1980 play ''Translations'' is a stunning and moody production that examines the use of language to bond and to divide in both a personal and a political sense. It also becomes a symbol of patriotism and conscience as it plays into the conflicts and connections among the occupied and the occupiers in Ireland in 1833. The play is beautifully staged by Irish director Garry Hynes with a sympathy that extends to people on all sides in that quarrel.

Setting his tale in the imaginary Irish village of Ballybeg, (itself renamed from the Gaelic, Baile Beag) in a hardscrabble dirt-floored school house in a mud-walled old barn (designed as if it were a painting by Francis O'Connor), Friel presents a ''conquered'' people who may be dirt poor and no match for British military power, but who are literate and thoughtful.

Graeme Malcoln, Susan Lynch, ALan Cox, Chandler Williams (left to right). Photo by Joan Marcus

This schoolroom is not for children, but for adults. Some wish to advance in life, others simply to expand their intellect. Old Jimmy Jack (Dermot Crowley) a scruffy 60ish fellow, is studying books in Latin and Greek. Young Maire (Susan Lynch) wants to learn English, language of commerce, and has dreams of going to America. Manus (David Costabile), the lame school teacher, is a mild but compassionate man who exults when he teaches the mute young Sarah (Morgan Hallett) to pronounce her name.

The British Captain Lancey (Graeme Malcolm) and Captain Yolland (Chandler Williams), supposedly representative of higher culture, have arrived to map the area and change the place names from the Gaelic to English, the better to stamp Britain's ownership of the place. Hence ''Translations, where transforming language becomes a ritual of imperial domination.

Manus's father, Hugh (Niall Buggy), the pompous old master who runs the school, has an admirable devotion to academic truth but also a sense of his own importance. He treats his son a servant-assistant. They all recognize that they must accommodate to the new power. Hugh has applied to be headmaster of a new British-run English-language school – which will help in the colonial process of subduing the Irish -- and Manus defers to him by not filing his own application. In the end, of course, the Wordsworth that Hugh and Jack dismiss, will become as known to the Irish as any of their own writers.

Living somewhere between both groups is Hugh's son Owen (Alan Cox), who left Balleybeg six years earlier and is a successful shop owner in Dublin. Owen is an operator, the sort who plays all angles to get ahead, and he has become the translator for the British. To establish his sympathies, he even changed his name from Owen to Roland. The clothes of the Irish are all earth tones, the British are in red coats, and Owen's jacket is somewhere in between, a muted red.

But language is not always a barrier. The drama is heightened when the British lieutenant is smitten by both the land and young Maire. They cannot converse but love the sounds of each other's speech. Yet, the lieutenant's love arouses others' animosity. Lovers who cross lines court danger. Some things can't translate.

This is an ensemble play, and it's hard to single out any one of the very fine actors. Among the more memorable, Niall Buggy combines just the right combination of bluster and pathos as Hugh, and David Costabile expertly portrays the sensitivity and hesitancy of Manus. Dermot Crowley is a delight as the occasionally drunk old Latin and Greek devotee. Susan Lynch infuses Maire with all the guts and gumption she'll need in America.

Friel's play is a remarkable blend of poetry and politics.

Fore more informatiom visit the website: http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/current-season/p-translations.htm.




by Brian Friel
Directed by Garry Hynes
Biltmore Theatre
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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