There’s something elegiac about the current production of Brian Friel’s Translations now playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Set in Ireland in 1833, the play explores imperial oppression and cultural dominance as the British army descends upon a small Irish community to re-write its place names and, in the process, reshape its identity and history. Played in English – as a stand in for the Irish language, Greek, and Latin, the play centers on the power of language to create not only beauty and meaning, but venality and banality. Director Doug Hughes lets the words “speak for themselves” in this traditional, yet extraordinarily lyrical production.
Set against a moody Irish sky backdrop, you can almost smell the fresh moist air of the green fields that surround the hedge-school where the play opens (the set is by Charlie Corcoran). Hedge-schools were illegal rural establishments that set out to educate the local Irish-speaking community, not just in basic math, reading, and writing, but also in literature and sometimes Greek and Latin.
The students in this class make a motley group including the Latin-spouting down-and-out Jimmy Jack (played with charm by John Keating) who dreams of marrying the goddess Athene. He’s joined by the silent, elfin Sarah whose struggles to speak are delicately portrayed by Erin Wilhelmi. Sarah’s silence symbolizes how the British imposition of the English language essentially left the Irish without a voice. Other students, Doalty and Bridget, are energetically played by Owen Laheen and Oona Roche, while their gentle tutor is Manus, the younger son of the teacher at the school, constantly in his father’s shadow. Owen Campbell handles this pivotal role with a subtle power that delivers devastating consequences. The last member of the class is Maire. The dewy Mary Wiseman is captivating as a red-headed farmer’s daughter who can define Latin verbs, but speaks only one useless phrase of English. Finally, their teacher arrives, the drunken Hugh, a poet and sage who is being recruited by the British to run an official school where all the instruction will be in English. Seán McGinley does a fine turn as the school master both resigned to colonial oppression and the need to speak English while bristling against it.
This is Ireland before the potato famine, before the mass migration of millions to escape starvation and poverty that cut the population by up to a quarter. This is one hundred and fifty years before The Troubles. At the time, the whole of Ireland was under British rule. In order to solidify British dominance, a new map of Ireland was commissioned that standardized Irish place names. In Translations, this task falls to a young British soldier, Lieutenant Yolland, his commander Captain Lancey, and their translator Owen, the school master’s other son. Their arrival is where the real language barriers become apparent. Captain Lancey, played by Rufus Collins, indulges in the classic crutch of the monolingual and talks slowly and loudly to his Irish interlocutors. The English are ostensibly here to “civilize” the Irish, yet their inability to speak anything but their own language suggests they are the ones lacking in civilization. The tactic doesn’t work – the comedy of the play nearly all revolves around these misunderstandings, and Owen, a lithe Seth Numrich, not only mistranslates but tolerates his masters’ misnaming him Roland on repeat. The younger soldier, Lieutenant Yolland, here the engaging Raffi Barsoumian, is captivated by the Irish landscape and language. He soon also becomes enchanted by Maire. Their tentative courtship is lost in translation, as neither speaks the other’s language.
The renaming of the countryside points to the power of language to shape a place and, as Hugh the schoolmaster remarks, language sometimes does not keep pace with reality: “[I]t can happen that a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of… fact.” Translations‘ themes clearly resonate at time when conflict continues to spark around the world. The play has been performed in many languages. I long ago saw a production in Russian in Ukraine just after the demise of the Soviet Union. At the time, it appeared to be looking back at Russian oppression. The play was recently performed again in Ukraine, soon after the Russian invasion, this time in Ukrainian. Hugh ends the play quoting from Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid. The tragic implication is that not much has changed since ancient times.