Language in all its joy — and terror — is the abiding topic of “Translations,” the masterful Brian Friel play that speaks to audiences now more than ever, even in an imperfect production. Sean Holmes’ touring version for the National’s education dept. is more coarse-grained and prosaic than might be ideal, but enough of the play gets through enough of the time to convey its import anew: Civilization exists a scant phrase, word, syllable away from chaos.
Friel’s scarily timeless theme is pegged to a decisive chapter in Ireland’s turbulent past: the renaming of Irish place names into English in the 1830s. The setting, per usual, is Friel’s near-mythic fictional patch of County Donegal known as Ballybeg, or Baile Beag in Gaelic before the English got to it. (Many such names are now reverting officially to the original Irish.)
In a scenario Friel would rewrite only this year with his latest play, “The Home Place,” a rural hedge school is shaken up by the emergence into the community’s begrimed, barefoot midst of two English soldiers who have come to remake the map of Ireland. One doesn’t need to know that “Translations” premiered in 1980 in Derry as a banner play of the then-fledgling Field Day theater company to see its infinite connections to the very environment of the “troubles” from which the play arose.
Though the play itself contains one of the great rapturous love scenes in all contemporary drama, its citizenry exist on the cusp of violence. For all the wit and wisdom of a people conversant in Latin and Greek (if not always English), “Translations” anatomizes the ongoing impulse toward tribal warfare whose modern-day equivalents are too numerous to mention.
The play is galvanically beautiful but tricky, too, and foundered in its belated Broadway debut in 1995, headlined by Brian Dennehy. For all the realism of its settings, and Friel’s stage directions, there’s something essentially poetic about the landscape of a play that on one level hurtles toward transcendence even as it closes with an image one might think of as an historical time bomb.
Holmes’ solution to the particular challenge posed by the play is to race through it, his cast barking their lines with a bravado disproportionate to the intimate Cottesloe. (To be fair, show has been touring to larger venues, so may find its natural NT volume in time.) The overemphasis affects both larger roles (the lovesick English lieutenant Yolland, whom Tom Vaughan-Lawlor plays as a thickly sideburned buffoon) and smaller ones, as well (a goonish Eugene O’Hare as the priapically minded Doalty, a part first taken 25 years ago by Liam Neeson).
The two elder spokesmen for erudition are the Homerically minded Jimmy Jack and the antiquity-obsessed schoolmaster Hugh; Tony Rohr and Kenny Ireland play the roles like a pair of Dickensian cut-ups. A greater impression is left by Aislinn Mangan as the near-mute Sarah, whose slow learning of English slips entirely away with the merest hint of tyranny; and Mairead McKinley in the pivotal role of Maire, whose nocturnal encounter with Yolland slides precipitously from joy toward grief.
Like the characters in Friel’s beloved Chekhov, his townsfolk in “Translations” look hopefully toward the future but find scant succor or certainty in today.
Anthony Lamble’s set shows a scene open to the elements yet pregnant with collapse, as if anticipating the awful fate suggested for it by the grim-faced Capt. Lancey (Simon Coates), the play’s resident English colonist writ large. Nowadays, one would describe the plan outlined by Lancey as a form of ethnic cleansing, a phrase unknown even to the savvy linguists who populate this play.
But if “Translations” doesn’t speak the language of 21st-century warfare, it occupies a lastingly familiar terrain of love and loss. Various productions — some better, some worse — will come and go, but the play’s power remains always.