A solid argument could be made in support of the view that “Translations” first produced in 1980 and now back on Broadway in an absolutely flawless revival directed by Garry Hynes, is the prolific Donegal playwright’s finest work.
This wonderfully ambitious and lyrical drama, splendid though it is, is fairly far from the most audience-friendly item in the impressive Friel canon.
To begin with, the audience must be made to understand, and keep in mind for the length of the play, the fact that, most of the time, most of the tale’s characters are speaking the Irish language as opposed to English.
Even after this convention has been accepted, this dense, history-laden drama makes demands on its audiences well beyond what is asked of them by most theatrical experiences.
In other words, “Translations” asks that its customers do some work, but, if they comply, the rewards will be enormous.
Friel has set the play in “a hedge school in the townland of Baile Beag, an Irish-speaking community in County Donegal,” over the course of a few days in late August 1833.
Historically, it was a moment in which the British were attempting to convert Irish place names into their English equivalents, meanwhile remapping the country, county by county and village by village, in order to strengthen and solidify the grip in which they held the island nation they had so long oppressed and exploited. British domination of Ireland began in the 16th century, growing ever more rigorous as time passed.
To cite just one example, Baile Beag, the community which Friel “created” and in which he has set so many of his plays, would, once the English had completed their mission, be known as Ballybeg, a name supposedly simple for the oppressors to get their tongues around.
Parenthetically, the name the whimsical Friel gave his town, Baile Beag, translates into English as “small town.”
The hedge schools were secret entities set up by Irish scholars in an attempt to keep learning alive in Ireland, even in rural, semi-isolated areas in a time when the country’s occupiers were determined to keep the subject people ignorant and uninformed.
In “Translations,” Friel has placed Hugh, a bibulous, erudite and slightly ridiculous scholar, fluent in Latin, Greek and even Hebrew, in charge of a covert school operating out of the barn on his property.
His students, of whom there appear to be roughly a half-dozen, some of whom turn up more regularly than others, are drawn mainly from the younger generation of residents of the neighboring farms. There is one “student” of an age roughly appropriate to that of Hugh, namely Jimmy Jack, a sort of “idiot savant” the others refer to as the “infant prodigy.”
Jimmy Jack is clearly a fixture in Hugh’s life and in his classes, a living, breathing repository of scraps and fragments of arcane information he is able to call up at will, usually in response to a cue from the teacher.
Hugh has two sons, Manus, slightly crippled as a result of a childhood accident involving his father, has remained at home, while his brother, Owen, has left and now returns as an employee of the British, helping facilitate the mapping and renaming.
Nothing if not pragmatic, Owen has become a sort of turncoat, helping the English intensify their hold over his own people, from whom through absence, he has become, at least partially, alienated.
Owen has returned to Baile Beag, or Ballybeg, if you will, as part of a surveying team headed up by two British military officers, the stiff-backed, officious and slightly stupid Captain Lancey, and his aide, the sympathetic and vulnerable Lieutenant Yolland.
The lieutenant, ripe and ready for a sort of reverse colonization quickly comes to love Ireland, its language and its people, particularly Maire, the beautiful, mobile daughter of a neighboring farmstead, who regularly brings milk to Hugh and his household.
Among the hedge school’s other pupils are Sarah, a shy girl plagued by an unexplained speech impediment which the humane and kindly Manus, who quietly loves her, is trying to help her overcome, at least to the extent of being able to articulate clearly her name and the location of her family home.
In addition, there are Doalty and Bridget, carefree young locals who resemble, in a way, rustic youths out of Shakespearean comedies, “As You Like It” in
If there is a genuinely ensemble production currently at work on a New York stage, with everything in place and in beautiful balance, this is it, calibrated to utter perfection by director Hynes, founder of Galway City’s celebrated Druid Theatre and once, albeit rather briefly, artistic director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.
Niall Buggy’s boozy, slightly pompous, vaguely childlike Hugh, decked out in offbeat, somewhat formal-seeming attire, is a poignant, moving, sympathetic figure to the point where it’s totally clear why the damaged Manus, in the person of the stalwart David Costabile, has stayed around to look after him.
Chandler Williams’s Lieutenant Yolland is wholly likeable and somehow endangered from the first word he speaks, which makes his surrender to Ireland and to the lovely Maire, gracefully delivered by Susan Lynch, entirely credible.
Dermot Crowley’s Jimmy Jack is a perfect example of a fine, richly experienced actor making something truthful and satisfying out of an extremely tricky role which, in other hands, would very easily have gone calamitously wrong.
Another Friel character who might have all too easily run off the rails is Owen, who stands with one foot in the British camp and the other on the soil of his nat