Translations

  • Review by:
    Barbara Mehlman


    Written by: Brian Friel
    Directed by: Garry Hynes
    Cast: Niall Buggy, David Costabile, Alan Cox, Dermot Crowley, Michael FitzGerald, Morgan Hallett, Geraldine Hughes, Susan Lynch, Graeme Malcolm, and Chandler Williams
    Synopsis: Set in Donegal in 1833, the play tells the story of a small community on the brink of irrevocable change. Most of the action takes place in the home of learned but doddery Hedge School master Hugh O�Donnell, where, in accordance with British law, Catholic pupils are taught classics and mathematics.


    Review by Barbara Mehlman

    In a recent interview with Tom Stoppard in which he talked about his trilogy, "The Coast of Utopia," he expressed his belief that a nation can be defined by its artists, and particularly, its writers.

    Brian Friel, in his 1981 play "Translations," asserts that language is at the core of what defines national character. Certainly, language is much more than a tongue we use to communicate with others. Remember this news story -- a pharmacy proprietor in Quebec risked a fine and arrest because he defiantly displayed a "Le Drugstore" sign above his entrance?

    Here in our own country, emotional debates continue over whether to pass legislation establishing English as our official language, put forth by politicians and citizen groups who worry that Spanish is "taking over."

    The same was true nearly 175 years ago In the fictional town of Ballybeg, first given life by Friel in his Tony-winning play, "Dancing at Lughnasa." The Irish-speaking inhabitants of this remote village clung fiercely to their Gaelic language, even when the tin-eared English overran their land and forced them to speak the unfamiliar tongue.

    The Irish Cultural Society, keeper of the Irish story, explains that the center of most of this conflict was in the Hedge Schools which "emerged out of the harshness of the infamous Penal Laws, passed between 1702 and 1719, which specified that 'no person of the popish religion shall publicly or in private houses teach school, or instruct youth in learning within this realm.'

    Well, there's nothing like a prohibition to incite rebellion, and this Penal Law did the deed. It is within this context that Friel has set his masterpiece, now in a stunning new production on Broadway, providing audiences with a glimpse of rebellious Irish history through life in a Hedge School, and a sweet but tragic love story.

    Jimmy Jack, a student still despite his wrinkles and gray hair, is the first to speak, showing off his knowledge of the classical world. He tells the rest of the class that he likes "Zeus's girls," but Athena is the one that turns him on. This learned man who never went to college can also recite from memory the entire Book One of Horace's "Satires."

    His classmates in this dirt-floor schoolroom are Bridget and her boyfriend Doalty, an aptly named dolt; the teenager Sarah who, because of speech problems, is just learning to say her name; and Maire, tacitly acknowledged to be engaged to Manus, but wanting to leave for America.

    Manus is the diffident assistant teacher who leads this group of diligent students, along with his father, Hugh, a formidable presence who says that "English couldn't really express us." His love of Irish, however, is about to be challenged head-on when Capt. Lancey and Lt. Yolland, two English officers, enter the school and let them know that things will change.

    They announce to everyone that all their maps are to be redone so that the names of towns can be altered to English equivalents, enlisting the translation skills of Owen, Hugh's other son, visiting from Dublin. Lancey, making no apologies for his insensitivity, insists on calling Owen by the name of Roland as he's unable to pronounce the odd name.

    Yolland, on the other hand, is embarrassed by the indignities he must inflict upon the people, and laments that he cannot even say "thank you" in their language. Yolland comes to love Ballybeg, and falls in love with Maire, to the excruciating pain of Manus who saw the young woman as the only bright spot in his hopeless existence.

    "Translations" is a beautiful, funny, and deeply poignant play, calling up recognizable references to Shakespearean plays that ignore the obvious irony. Friel's writing is graceful and powerful, and the actors, whose names you'll probably not recognize, give this story the breadth that'll make you think about it whenever you think of high-quality theater.

    Barbara Mehlman



    What the press had to say.....

    CHARLES ISHERWOOD of the NEW YORK TIMES: �Ms. Hynes has 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.�

    JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ of NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: "Friel's drama...is by turns folksy and earthy and poetic and mythic. This soulful revival ... fully taps its treasures. Credit the assured, unfussy direction by Tony winner Garry Hynes and her crackerjack American, Irish and English cast, which has no weak link."

    CLIVE BARNES of NEW YORK POST: "It's a difficult play to produce, and this version.... 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."

    MICHAEL SOMMERS of the STAR-LEDGER: "While the well-grounded acting appears natural enough, there's also a heightened quality to the performances that illuminates the plaintive beauty of Friel's language and story. Without exception, Hynes' sure-footed ensemble sounds all the right notes of humor and sorrow found in Friel's touching play."

    ELYSA GARDNER of USA TODAY: "The Manhattan Theatre Club's absorbing, heartbreaking revival... captures the tortured contradictions at the heart of Friel's drama without stooping to sentimentality." & "After more than 25 years, Friel's study of the beauty and futility of words, and the power and difficulty of human connection, remains as haunting and relevant as ever."

    ROBERT FELDBERG of THE RECORD: "The ideas of 'Translations' are intriguing, and much of the writing has a sublime, poetic quality. However, few of the characters, despite some fine acting, are sufficiently fleshed out.... 'Translations' doesn't get much fire from its characters or their relationships, but it's a play that's energized by intelligence and insight."

    LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY: "Brian Friel's 1980 masterwork, was a revelation on Broadway in 1995. How we wish we could say that Manhattan Theatre Club had found the same eerily startling immediacy in the middling revival that opened last night at the Biltmore Theatre."

    ERIC GRODE of NEW YORK SUN: " Director Garry Hynes ...craft(s) a well-paced, suitably raucous potboiler that slips in cultural commentary with admirable stealth. Not even a handful of over-the-top performances can dampen the bracing effect of her empathy for Mr. Friel's boisterous, doomed villagers."

    JOHN SIMON of BLOOMBERG: "Such powerful scenes as the anglicizing of Irish place names and the closing meditation on transience are not fully enough exploited by the director, Garry Hynes, and her cast. Still, none of this is life-threatening to the play, nor should it keep you from this deeply human experience."

    MICHAEL KUCHWARA of the ASSOCIATED PRESS: "It's an extraordinary play, emotionally satisfying and intellectually bracing at the same time. And this splendid Broadway revival... has been able to tap into both aspects."

    DAVID ROONEY of VARIETY: "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. "

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