note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Monica Raymond
The opening moments of Devanaughn Theatre's production of Brian Friel's TRANSLATIONS reminded me of a director counselling a nervous actor. "Breath deep--in, out,in, out" Manus (Mike Manship), the lame school teacher coaches Sara (Colleen Rua)as the girl stammers, struggling to speak. When she finally gets out the primal sentence "My name is Sara," Manus is exultant. "Nothing'll stop us now!" he exclaims. "Nothing in the wide world!"
In Friel's play, such confidence is short-lived. For the world of Friel's play, like Chekhov's in The Cherry Orchard, is a dying one,suffused with disappointment and self-delusion. But if Chekhov, the son of serfs, "squeezed the slave out of the soul" by empathizing with the aristocracy, in Friel's case the disappearing culture is a humble one. TRANSLATIONS is set in a private "hedge school" in a converted barn in Donegal circa 1833. There Irish-speaking farm workers come when they can, paying in pence for lessons in geography and arithmetic. The hedge school is hardly idyllic--Hugh (Gerald Slattery), the owner and master is a drunken snob who speaks in Latinate pomposities, and won't pay Manus, his son, enough so he can marry. But Friel shows how aptly the school suits this community, accomodating everyone from Jimmy Jack (Brian Quint), who spouts Homer in the original Greek, to the near-dumb Sara.
All that's about to change, though, with the arrival of Hugh's other son, Owen (Dan Cozzens). Owen's now on the British payroll, helping the soldiers, Lancey(Kevin Groppe) and Yolland(Rob O'Dwyer) complete the ordnance survey, a map of the area which will standardize and Anglicize Irish place names. And the national school,we learn, is coming soon--which will provide free books and tuition, and use English as the only language of instruction.
TRANSLATIONS is, at least at first, about the "soft" side of conquest, language and education. But the genius of Friel's play is how far away he stays from from PC pieties about colonialism. The British occupation is an occupation, certainly--but within the play different characters make different choices about how to respond to it. Owen sees it, at least at first, as an opportunity to modernize, to clear away vestiges of old stories no one remembers. Doalty (John Dupuis) is a trickster who moves the poles stuck in the ground for the land survey. Manus, who refuses to speak anything but Gaelic in front of the English soldiers, has an eye for Maire (Rose Carlson), who is desperate to learn English,to travel to America, to get out.
Even the two English soldiers we see differ. Lancey's the traditional colonialist while Yolland's a ne'er-do-well dreamer who wound up in Ireland because he flunked the exam for the colonial service in Bombay. Enraptured by the landscape,firewater and curly-haired Maire, he hopes to settle down in Ballybeg. It's Friel's little joke that the Englishman who wants to stay in Ireland, and Irish girl who desperately wants to leave, find each other in a courtship dance where neither understands at all what the other is saying.
The theatrical conceit of the play (which doesn't sound like it would work, but it does!) is that the Irish are speaking Gaelic and the English are speaking English and that they don't understand each other--even though everyone on stage is actually speaking English. No Gaelic words but the old place names pass anyone's lips, and this makes them especially potent (poetent, I almost wrote)--not simply names, but names as carriers, talismans of a banished culture.
Coaching in Gaelic seems to have made the actors confident, fluent. And the best scenes are those where the magical names take center stage--Owen and Yolland's discussion of the map, and Maire and Yolland's love scene, where place names, all the language they share, have to stand in for the land, the body, in all its yearning and promise.
Friel's script cries out for the recreation of this lost culture, for a costumer willing to soak clothes in horse piss, for actors to to transform back into denizens of a world layered with of myth and story. Quint makes a valiant stab at it in his Jimmy Jack, and Mike Manship's bitter yet somehow oddly vulnerable Manus sticks with me. Colleen Rua's Sara in her barely-speaking role registers every flicker of anguish and grief in a powerfully embodied performance.
But, by and large, the director seems to have chosen to emphasize the "universal" aspects of this story at the expense of the politics of cultural destruction. This leaves those actors who DO try for such a re-creation adrift among others too young and clean for their roles. It also leaves the final scene, an elegy where Hugh compares the imminent destruction of the community to the fall of Carthage untethered, confusing. We're left saying "huh?" instead of "ah, yes" as the lights fade.