nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
January 27, 2007
There are many things to recommend about the present production of Brian Friel's Translations at Manhattan Theatre Club. My reservations are few, but I think you ought to think carefully before you commit your dollars to this Broadway ticket.
This production is designed beautifully and the stage pictures are stunning and often breathtaking. Director Garry Hynes, set and costume designer Francis O'Connor, and lighting designer Davy Cunningham have collaborated on a visual masterpiece, mostly using a heightened realism as their palette, to bring us into a school barn in Baile Beag, otherwise known as Ballybeg, County Donegal, Ireland, in 1833. And the acting is of the highest caliber, all true to the characters, with authentic dialects and honest naturalistic interpretations.
The story is engaging. The setting is a "hedge school," an underground school born out of the Irish populace's desire to continue teaching its young despite the suppression of Irish education by the English beginning with Cromwell in the 17th century. The name derives from the fact that in its beginnings most of the classes took place literally under hedges. In the late 1700s, England gave some legal status to these schools, but they were still based chiefly in barns. Reading, writing, arithmetic, Latin and Greek classics, mathematics, geography and much more were taught by learned hedge schoolmasters, who were held in high regard. As presented here, they were dynamic places of learning.
Here, amidst this dynamism, comes a detail of British sappers (army engineers), charged with the mapping of the country, and in doing so, the standardization of place names. This name changing is a key element of the play. The English had been occupying Ireland since the 1500's and they wanted the names anglicized. Yet Gaelic was still largely the spoken and written language in Ireland in the early 1800s, much to the English occupier's consternation. At the play's outset, the school has already lost some of its pupils to the resultant brewing political unrest.
One British sapper detached to Ballybeg, the young lieutenant Yolland, is in love with the Irish countryside, with its people and with its language. He longs to speak Gaelic and to stay in what he clearly sees as a romantic idyll. During the course of his stay he falls for a local girl, Maire, who loves her studies in geography and yearns to go out of Ballybeg to the places she has learned about in her lessons. Listening to the British, who have set up their mapping operation in the hedge school, she falls in love with the sound of English, wants to learn to speak it, and in fact falls in love with Yolland. The fateful attraction between Yolland and Maire forms the spine of the play.
The play's most important and possibly best scene occurs roughly halfway through the evening, just after the intermission. Yolland and Maire have fled laughing from a dance and find themselves alone, outside, with the stars blazing overhead and their mutual attraction afire in their hearts. The problem is that they cannot speak each other's language. Yet they express their love in their native tongues and manage to communicate through subtext. This lovely scene blends theme and characterization wonderfully and is a great illustration of Friel's cleverness in having everyone in the play speak English so that we immediately see the linguistic differences and cognitive disconnects between the two cultures. Clearly, the longing for understanding is a major theme here and the main metaphor—witness the title of the play. Events following this scene turn the piece away from what could be a comedy to inevitable tragedy, where forces of resistance destabilize the idyllic Ballybeg while inexorable change advances. The ending is traumatic for the characters and for the audience, as we watch incipient lines of communication fray and ultimately unravel.
Chandler Williams and Susan Lynch are charming, believable and just plain very, very good as the star-crossed lovers. Niall Buggy is perfect as the hedge master Hugh. Appearing through an exchange agreement between British Equity and Actors' Equity (as is Lynch, by the way), Buggy knows this idiom well and performs brilliantly. Alan Cox as Owen and David Constable as Manus play Hugh's two sons, who have very different takes on what's important in life. Manus, slightly crippled, has stayed at home to help with the hedge school while Owen has gone off to make his fortune in business and returns, coincidently, to assist the British as interpreter. The irony of Owen's return as interpreter is wonderfully palpable but never overbearing as interpreted by Cox, who is also quite engaging. Manus is in essence the moral core of the play and his steadfastness, burning with his own desires, is brought to life by Constable with appealing believability.
The entire cast desires mention for their terrific interpretations, guided presumably by director Garry Hynes's keen insights into the inhabitants of Friel's world. Morgan Hallett, in a virtually non-speaking role (her character Sarah has a severe speech impediment) creates an inner life that is incredibly open and heart wrenching. Dermot Crowley as Jimmy Jack, Michael Fitzgerald as Doalty and Geraldine Hughes as Bridget all bring the people of Ballybeg to life with an attention to naturalistic detail that is a testament to the quality of their art. Graeme Malcolm, as the British Captain Lancey, becomes the embodiment of occupational rule with studied understatement that shows both the harsh reality of his job and the humanistic underpinnings.
Given all this, you might wonder what my reservation is. Well, I had the most trouble not with the acting, the design or the script, but with the pacing that Hynes uses as her medium in which to portray it all. At times it seems as if she has treated the material with too much reverence, as if it were a "classic" in quotes that one needs to be respectful about and approach with awe. Hynes is clearly at the top of the heap internationally as an interpreter of Irish drama. She does Friel justice handsomely on many levels with this production at MTC. I just wish that there were fewer pauses and that some of the longer monologues had more internal pacing and rhythm. Perhaps this is a quibble, but I did find my mind wandering at times during the play. Given the material, I just don't think that that ought to happen.