Many languages are bandied about in Brian Friel’s Translations—Greek, Latin, Gaelic, the king’s English, to name a few—creating a rich linguistic tapestry central to the play’s theme of cultural identity, understanding and meaning without words and ultimately, tragic miscommunication.
Studio Theatre and director Matt Torney (Belfast-born) have done a dandy job with Friel’s 1980 intimate ensemble play, conveying the harshness and poetry of Ireland at a historic crossroads. The humor comes shining through, as does the lyrical, epic Irish language that begs to be preserved, not erased on the pretext of change and modernism. The ensemble cast, as tightly knit as a rural village, is exemplary, as natural with Gaelic and other languages as if born to them.
Translations is based on a historical incident—the renaming of Ireland in 1833, where Britain’s Royal Engineers methodically Anglicized towns, rivers, cliffs and other place markers, redrawing the map in an attempt to vandalize Irish culture and land ownership.
At the same time, the age-old tradition of the hedge school was being phased out of Ireland in favor of national schools, which only taught and spoke English. Hedge schools (which have been around since the Middle Ages) taught Gaelic language, along with Greek, Latin, astronomy, history, philosophy, arithmetic and geometry, a classic education that took place in makeshift classrooms, usually homes or barns, with a schoolmaster who often traveled from community to community and also taught adults in the evening.
It is in such a setting that Translations takes place, a covert hedge school in a dusty, hay-strewn barn in the town of Baile Beag—renamed by the English to Ballybeg—in County Donegal.
Language is everywhere in Translations, from the opening scene of Manus (Matthew Aldwin McGee), the lame son of the schoolmaster, patiently instructing a largely silent young woman Sarah (Megan Graves) to say her name and where she comes from.
This humble classroom is home to a rag-tag group of adult students—Jimmy Jack (Martin Giles), a duffer drunk on poteen and ancient Greek who longs to marry the goddess Athena; Maire (Molly Carden), a milkmaid linked to Manus but who has ambitions and aspirations beyond Ballybeg; mischievous Doalty (Joe Mallon) who seems like a gruff buffoon until he effortlessly translates Latin words and their etymology; his equally feisty companion Bridget (Caroline Dubberly). They are held in thrall by august, oratorical schoolmaster Hugh (Bradley Armacost), who has the Irish thirst but also a gilded tongue that glides between Gaelic, Latin, Greek and English, although many of the words in the latter language he deems “silly.”
closes April 22, 2018
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This pastoral scene is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Hugh’s other son Owen (Erin Gann), who fled the village years ago to reinvent himself in Dublin. He has been hired as an interpreter and translator by two British officers Captain Lancey (Jeff Keogh) and Lieutenant Yolland (Cary Donaldson), to help with the map-making and name-changing.
Owen—whom the British have Anglicized to Roland—begins as an eager collaborator, seeing the task as a step towards the future. But as the real political and economic motivations of the assignment become clear, Owen’s role is that of a co-conspirator. And then there’s the matter of the language. As he points out the various names in Gaelic and the stories behind them, Owen falls in love with home and country all over again. The new English names, generic and meaningless, sit in his mouth like stones.
His rediscovery of Gaelic’s potency has a profound influence on Yolland, as romantic and impressionable as his superior Lancey is stiff upper Brit. Yolland falls in love with the land, its people (even though they amiably shout back at him “I don’t understand a word you’re saying!”), the language and in particular, young Maire.
The first half of Translations is gentle and almost playful, bandying between the schoolmaster’s lessons (which in their seminar format, seem only a toga’s throw away from that of Plato) and the banter between the characters.
The second act grows urgent and dark, as we see how language can bind us together or divide and tear us apart. Yolland and Maire, transcend words in their declaration of love for each other after a dance. His Gaelic is sketchy; her English is largely limited to a nursery rhyme her Aunt Mary taught her “In Norfolk we besport ourselves around the maypole.” But it’s enough for them to convey their turbulent feelings for each other in a beautifully played scene that gambols between frustration and ardor.
“I am a barbarian in this place because I am not understood,” Jimmy Jack says, sadly reciting Ovid, another exile in his own country. The Irish villagers in Translations are lost amid radical change that comes not with a roar but with the quiet undermining of their native tongue and national identity.
This resonant production made me think of two things. First, my ex, who complained bitterly to me about his mother’s insistence he learn Erse while a schoolboy in Dublin. He and his family came to America when he was 12. “What did I need to know that crusty old language for?” he’d grouse and I hadn’t a clue what to say to him.
Next, I thought about the recent efforts in Baltimore and other cities to rename places with Civil War ties and topple or replace Civil War statues. I applaud winnowing down the Civil War statues, since the sheer number of them in Baltimore was clearly an unsubtle intimidation technique against black people. But changing Robert E. Lee Park to Lake Roland, a meaningless name that just sounds nice? Our racial and slave history is shameful in this country but we must remember it and bear the weight of it, not erase it.
Translations by Brian Friel . Director: Matt Torney. Featuring: Matthew Aldwin McGee, Megan Graves, Martin Giles, Molly Carden, Joe Mallon, Caroline Dubberly, Bradley Armacost, Erin Gann, Jeff Keogh, Cary Donaldson. . Set Designer Debra Booth. Costume Designer: Wade Laboissonniere. Lighting Designer: Keith Parham. Sound Designer: Palmer Hefferan. Dramaturg: Adrien-Alice Hansel. Production Stage Manager: Allie Roy. Produced by Studio Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.