Among the chief distinctions of Garry Hynes’ marathon staging last season of the complete works of J.M. Synge was the profound cultural identity she brought to plays both major and minor, refortifying their already deep-rooted foundations in Irish history, language, spirit and character. That quality makes her an ideal director for Brian Friel’s 1980 play “Translations,” a passionately felt account of the 19th-century erosion of Irish national culture by colonizing British forces. Through expert modulation of tone, Hynes’ superb production conveys a creeping sense of violation and loss, the drama’s resonance amplified by its sobering echoes in the contemporary world.
Last seen on Broadway in a tepidly received, short-lived 1995 run directed by Howard Davies and starring Brian Dennehy, Dana Delany and Rufus Sewell, the play is co-produced here by Manhattan Theater Club and McCarter Theater Center in Princeton, N.J., where it was staged last fall. MTC has a long association with the work, having produced the U.S. premiere Off Broadway 26 years ago.
Like the litany of place names that cast a hypnotic spell in Friel’s “Faith Healer,” seen last season on Broadway, the names of townships take on weighted significance here. “Translations” is set in the playwright’s mythical County Donegal town of Baile Beg in 1833, when a detachment of British Royal Engineers has been assigned to draw a new map of the area, standardizing the confusion of Gaelic place names into the King’s English — starting with Ballybeg. The erasure of language is artfully equated by Friel with the stripping away of the soul.
Principal action takes place in a rustic barn that serves as a Hedge School. Its adult students perch on milking stools while the self-inflated master, Hugh (Niall Buggy), expounds on the finer points of Latin and Greek, heavily imbibing whatever booze is available. Hugh’s lame son Manus (David Costabile) greets the arrival of the British Redcoats with consternation, the presence of his prodigal brother Owen (Alan Cox) as their interpreter doing little to reassure him. But in the playful first act, most of the locals appear to regard the intruders with perplexed amusement, not as a serious threat.
Friel’s the most Chekhovian of Irish playwrights, and his dramas invariably carry a doleful sting, contained here in his depiction of the Irish as both innocent victims of cultural rape and heedless fools. Making light of the significance of a name — down to shrugging off the fact his English employers insist on calling him Roland — Owen finesses his translations to pass off the colonialist mission as beneficial to the interests of Ireland. And the locals appear almost willing to buy it.
Until late in the action, the ripples of resistance are felt only in some mildly subversive mischief, or in enigmatic references to the Donnelly twins, local lads who may or may not be responsible for running interference against the Brits.
There’s a subtle irony in the fact that while most of the characters speak only Irish, the dialogue is almost entirely in English, reminding us that the cultural imperialism of which the play speaks runs deep.
Physically, too, the imbalance of power is made evident by the casting of Graeme Malcolm as stiff-backed British commanding officer Captain Lancey and Chandler Williams as young topographer Lt. George Yolland. In their pristine uniforms, the two lanky beanpoles literally tower over the Irish in their ragged, mud-stained clothes.
A swooning, sensitive romantic, George commits the dangerous transgression of falling in love with the people and country being colonized. He’s enchanted by the place and its magical names. Most of all, he’s captivated by Maire (Susan Lynch), a local beauty long attached to Manus but drawn to the promise of a new world beyond Ireland.
There’s an amusing dismissal here of England as a xenophobic, hermetic culture and Ireland as one connected to the classical world, continental Europe, folklore and mythology. (“I’m afraid we’re not familiar with your literature, Lieutenant,” says Hugh when George invokes Wordsworth. “We feel closer to the warm Mediterranean. We tend to overlook your island.”) But the swipe is double-edged, with the Irish fascination for dead languages branding them a retrograde people.
The play contains a moonlit love scene staggering in its poignant sensuality, beguilingly played by Lynch and Williams as two people without a common language, communicating through awkward mime and guessing games. When it’s revealed the next day that George has gone missing, Hynes masterfully negotiates the shift from tender romance to brutal reality as Lancey outlines the consequences if information is not forthcoming, this time with Owen translating word for word.
Through historical metaphor, Friel’s fine play quietly but powerfully acknowledges a modern world blighted by culturally impoverishing invasions, ethnic cleansing, sectarian division and incomprehension far beyond that of mere language barriers.
The drama’s eloquence and the richness of its language are paired to effective contrast with Hynes’ earthy, vigorous approach. The cast tramples, often barefoot, over the dirt floor of designer Francis O’Connor’s immense concrete-walled barn, given shadowy textures by Davy Cunningham’s lighting.
The actors navigate a seamless progression from the humorous, at times almost broad touch of the early scenes through the steadily amplified gravity of the unfolding situation in which the volatile result of mixing love and politics inevitably is violence. Fully inhabiting their characters with unfussy naturalness, the cast has no weak link. Lynch is especially moving, while Buggy achieves a clumsy dignity and depth with a character given to pompous discourse. Dermot Crowley matches him as an unlikely scholar with an affinity for the ancient world.
But perhaps the most touching characterization is the one with the fewest words. Thanks to the painstaking attentions of Manus, the speech-impaired Sarah (Morgan Hallett) has learned to say her name. But when the full extent of British rule is articulated, her tentative voice is the first to be silenced. As one of the characters quotes early on from Tacitus, “It’s easier to stamp out learning than to recall it.”