In ‘Translations,’ a dead language comes alive


By Scott Harrah

Joan Marcus

Chandler Williams (l) and Alan Cox in the revival of Brian Friel’s “Translations.”

Anglo-induced angst has always been a key ingredient in Irish drama, and that is certainly the case in Brian Friel’s 1980 play “Translations.” This serviceable and effective revival of the dark drama — last seen in New York back in 1995 — boasts a finecast and good directing by Tony-winner Garry Hynes (“The Beauty Queen of Leeane”), but lighthearted and easy-to-follow it’s not.  Friel, who’s known for such Hibernophile classics as “Philadelphia, Here I Come,” “Dancing at Lughnasa” and “Faith Healer,” has never been a playwright that deals with thematic subtley.

The story is set in Ireland circa 1833, a time when the British army were surveying the conquered colonial land and giving all the Gaelic towns and landmarks English names. Alan Cox plays Owen, a local lad from County Donegal who is happy to help the Brits in literally Anglifying the landscape and believes that everyone will be better off economically and socially if they learn English. Owen’s father Hugh (NiallBuggy), who runs the local “hedge” school, and his brother, Manus (David Constable), hardly share his sentiments, and for good reason. “Hedge” schools were the original Irish schools run by Gaelic-speaking Catholics that were usually located outdoors in the shelter of a hedge or in a barn. Oppressive British laws banned them throughout Ireland until 1800.  When the British government finally legalized them, hedge schools were required to teach English in addition to Gaelic, Greek and Latin.

As Owen tries to convince his family that students in the school should learn English, his  girlfriend Maire (Susan Lynch) stands by him. However, Owen doesn’t hold on to his devoted lady for long because Maire soon develops romantic designs on the handsome Lieutenant Yolland (Chandler Williams), a British soldier that takes a fancy to the Irish people and their troubled land.

There any many admirable things in “Translations,” from Francis O’Connor’s carefully constructed sets (complete with a real dirt floor) and costumes to the performance of Dermot Crowley as Jimmy Jack, a salty, shamelessly sexist old drunk and perpetual student who’s only interested in learning risque English words that describe parts of the female anatomy.

Nearly all the characters except Owen speak Gaelic exclusively.  The show is performed in English, however, with a cast that speaks in Irish brogues as thick as the morning mist on the Emerald Isle. Although some may be slightly perplexed at first as to which character is speaking Gaelic or English, audiences will catch on quickly. “Translations” is primarily a tale of how the Irish lose their identity and part of their culture as they are forced to give up their native tongue and live under the imperial hand of their foreign invaders. Although many Irish historical dramas depict the tragedy of the potato-famine years after 1845, “Translations” tells about the injustices the British were inflicting upon the Irish people long before half the population was decimated and forced to flee to America and other far-away lands.

Unfortunately, the story loses steam in the second act when nothing clearly gets resolved. The ending disappoints with a blathering monologue by Hugh about Greek mythology and philosophy that seems an odd and rather obtuse finale for such a complex, epic tale. “Translations,” with its difficult narrative and sometimes slow pace, is not the sort of Broadway fare that will appeal to the masses, but fans of Brian Friel and those interested in learning about the myriad sturggles of the Irish throughout the ages will certainly enjoy this reverent revival.