Category: Archive

Theater Review Dazzling Friel at Long Wharf

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

TRANSLATIONS, by Brian Friel. An Abbey Theatre production directed by Ben Barnes. 2001 International Festival of Arts & Ideas at Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven. Through June 30.

A strong argument can be made that Brian Friel’s "Translations," which the Omagh-born playwright wrote in 1980, represents his most powerful bid for enduring greatness. If it’s Friel’s most resonant play, it’s also clearly among his most subtle and most demanding.

The Abbey Theatre’s earnest, inspired new production, directed with a sure hand by Ben Barnes, is paying a brief visit to New Haven, Connecticut, as part of that city’s 2001 International Festival of Arts and Ideas.

"Translations" will play thorough Saturday on the open, sweeping thrust stage of Long Wharf Theatre’s main playing area.

There may be great productions of "Translations" in the future, but it would be difficult indeed to imagine any of them surpassing this one, which seems to have overcome the play’s problems as though they were mere duckpins.

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"Translations" is composed of eloquent language, but at the same time it is about language, since it takes place as surveyors from the English army arrive in Donegal in the summer of 1833, overtly to map the area, but covertly to Anglicize the old Gaelic place names, and thereby compromise the Irish spirit and subjugate the people.

Subtly, playwright Friel has to acclimatize his audience that at least six of the play’s eight Irish characters speak only limited English, if they speak the language at all. The British interlopers, the sympathetic Lieutenant Yolland and the hostile and officious Captain Lancey, speak no Irish.

Only Owen, the older of the two sons of the widowed schoolmaster, Hugh, is fluent in both tongues, which is why he has returned to his family’s village, working for the English as a translator.

The character of Owen can be a stumbling block in any "Translations" production, since it would be easy to view him as a turncoat to the people around whom he has grown up. That explains why, perhaps, after casting the inherently likable Andrew Bennett in the role, director Barnes cleverly never has him appear in the scarlet British uniform, as has been the case in other stagings of the play.

As a result, Owen comes across as pragmatic, not devious. Hugh’s younger son, Manus, strongly played by the director’s brother, Barry Barnes, more or less tied to the family’s meager holdings by virtue of a slight physical impairment, emerges in this production as a vastly stronger and more insightful character than is generally the case.

The second half of "Translations" opens with one of the most daringly memorable love scenes ever written for the theater. The participants are Maire, a realistic young girl who sees the acquisition of English as the key to a better life in America, and Yolland, the innocent young Briton naif only too eager to love everything Irish. Hugh Lee’s Yolland is all yearning innocence, yet somehow a poignant, unforgettable match for the clearly more practical Maire provided by the resonant Morna Regan.

There’s likely to be no other scene played anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard this season with the incandescence, purity and passion these two appealing young actors bring to Friel’s great, unique love scene.

Just about everything about this dazzling "Translations" is precisely right. Director Barnes’s cast is admirable to the last detail, including Abbey veteran Des Cave as hugh, Brendan Conroy as Jimmy Jack, Fidelma Keogh as Sarah, a partially mute village girl, Brian Doherty and Lucianne McEvoy as neighboring youths, and Stephen Hogan as the stiff-backed British officer, Lancey.

The International Festival of Arts & Ideas, along with Long Wharf Theatre, is owed a genuine debt of gratitude for having brought the Abbey Theatre and this beautifully realized "Translations," if not to New York, at least to Connecticut, and if not for the lengthy run it deserves, at least for a dozen shining performances.

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