The particular beauty of Brian Friel’s “Translations” can be difficult to translate to an audience, as the Abbey Theater’s current revival makes clear. (A separate production flopped on Broadway two seasons ago.) By rights, this staging ought to have been guaranteed: Not only is it appearing in the same auditorium that spawned Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa” and the major Donal McCann revival of “Faith Healer,” but the director is Robin Lefevre, a past master of the dramatist’s work.
The play’s resonances, meanwhile, are virtually infinite. One doesn’t have to know that the northern Irish city in which “Translations” premiered in 1980 is called either Derry or Londonderry, depending on which side of the Anglo-Irish debate you’re on, to find contemporary variations on Friel’s highly specific topic: the English remapping of Ireland in the 1830s, when his (fictional) corner of County Donegal — Baile Beag, in Gaelic — became Ballybeg. Few plays root the political so deeply in the personal. The lasting power of “Translations” lies in its ability to transcend theses; we are as moved by the subtly insidious forces — linguistic and otherwise — that wrench apart the play’s families and lovers as we are by the large-scale incomprehensions that divide, and scar, a nation.
This may be Friel’s most cunningly written work, no matter how peculiar its construction at first appears. In uncertain hands, the ending can seem arbitrary , while the play’s emotional peak — the awakening to love of two young people who do not share a language — comes midway through the second act.
When “Translations” is done well, as it was under Sam Mendes’ direction at London’s Donmar Warehouse three years ago, one sees how practically every line links up — the early Latin lesson, for example, of the villager Doalty at the hedge school run by the (often drunken) schoolmaster Hugh. “Conjugo, I join together,” says Doalty (here played by Frank Laverty), a “translation” that will come to haunt a community slowly rent asunder. Or consider Friel’s analysis of ritual, from naming to the tribal loyalty implicit in the offstage brutality that closes the play. But under-directed and largely miscast, as it has been at the Abbey on a dully rustic set by Julian McGowan, and one watches an abundance of ideas in theatrical freefall; these characters rarely match the richness of the language they speak.
The best scene, for once, isn’t the rapturous volley of words — place names, mostly, that mean nothing to the people hearing them — between local villager Maire (a rather overeager Ali White) and English lieutenant Yolland (Philip Glenister), who falls hard for the people whose land he has come to remake. The high point occurs a scene earlier, in the encounter between Yolland and Owen (Lloyd Hutchinson), Hugh’s younger son returned home after six years in Dublin to be the English soldiers’ civilian interpreter.
While would-be imperialist Yolland worries about erasing a culture, it is his ostensible subject, Owen, who defends the English task. Ireland, Owen argues, is as much an accumulation of pieties and fictions as it is an actual terrain; and if only Yolland would call Owen by his correct name and not Roland — “Do I look like a Roland?” he asks — the two men might achieve the rapport their countries have not found to this day.
It’s a sparkling exchange, deeply funny and truthful, and its shifting moods are fully caught by both actors; Glenister, in particular, makes Yolland a sweetly innocent romantic, not the ardent buffoon he can sometimes seem. The arrival of Owen’s slightly disabled older brother, Manus (Gary Lydon), threatens to alter the mood, though Manus does not yet know his adored Maire will be smitten by the very “colonist” (his word) whom he holds in contempt. Lydon’s performance, though, is as heavy-going as his limp; one misses any suggestion of Manus as a shabbily dressed romantic of his own — a dreamer reaching for the same paradise that, the play implies, exists to be lost.
The schoolmaster Hugh (Kenneth Haigh) and his classics-obsessed chum Jimmy Jack (Derry Power) are Friel’s senior spokesmen, who root the action in a comic double-act that widens to reveal a tragic historical continuum. It is Hugh who unwittingly crushes his pupil Maire by dismissing her beloved “always” — a word given her by Yolland — as “silly.” How unfortunate, then, that Haigh and Power are, by turn, boringly stentorian and boozy, with Haigh’s starchy English accent confusing matters in a play so focused on language and sound. (The parts cry out for teamwork along the lines of Donal McCann and John Kavanagh, joint alumni of the Abbey premiere of Friel’s “Wonderful Tennessee.”)
“Confusion is not an ignoble condition,” says Hugh, before drifting into a reverie-turned-breakdown that ends this noblest of plays. In life and in love, he has a point. Only in the theater, as this “Translations” shows, can he be proven wrong.