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Theater at its Most Exhilarating:
Brian Friel's Translations at the McCarter

Also see Bob's review of The Things You Least Expect

You may safely skip the balance of this review for now, and immediately secure your tickets for the outstanding production of Brian Friel's glorious masterpiece Translations which is currently gracing the stage at McCarter's Matthews Theatre. Directed by Ireland's Garry Hynes, this masterful ensemble production is filled with brilliant insight, three dimensional characterizations, warm laughter, moving drama, and most of all, the glory of words. Dazzlingly literate, Translations lights up the mind with the fireworks of Friel's vibrant writing.

The Company

It is the summer of 1833. A most significant time for the in the history of British dominion over Ireland. Ireland has been under the direct rule of the British since 1801 after the failure of the rebellion of 1798. However, Britain is now in the process of imposing greater authority. It is the Crown's intention to dominate the culture by enforcing the use of English among the Gaelic speaking Irish of County Donegal. An adult class is gathered in a Gaelic speaking hedge school (a barely subsisting private school unsanctioned by the government) of agricultural Baile Beag (soon to be Ballybeg) where Greek and Latin classics are also studied in their original languages. The days of hedge schools are numbered as the Crown is in the midst of establishing an English language National School system. The school (and, for the most part, the play) is located in a dilapidated cow barn. The British army engineers are in the process of the first ever comprehensive mapping of Ireland. And they have arrived in Baile Beag in furtherance of their task.

For the moment, Hugh, the grizzled schoolmaster, is off on a drinking binge so the class is being taught by Manus, his older son and unsalaried assistant. The students present include Maire, a strong-willed young woman who wants to learn English and go to America to make her fortune. She would likely be content to stay home and marry Hugh if he had any prospect of being able to support a household. Also in the class are the dullish but enthusiastic young farmer Doalty; the intuitive and wary Bridget; and mute, striving Sarah, who is struggling with some success to say her first words. An old friend of the headmaster, Jimmy Jack, who is well versed in the classics, loiters among them for stimulation and pleasure.

Enter the British army in the form of martinet commanding officer Captain Lancey and young and open-hearted Lieutenant Yolland. Yolland is in charge of mapping the area and Anglicizing the place names. Neither speak any Gaelic. They are accompanied by the headmaster's younger son, Owen. Owen is in the employ of the British army as translator. Owen believes that good will come from the survey, and he translates the Captain's overbearing declarations into simple reassurances so as to elicit the local's support and cooperation for the task at hand.

Translations tells a basic, easy to follow story, yet it is extremely rich in ideas and language. It is about language. Its importance and limitations. Its ability to inspire and unite a nation and incorporate its history and tradition as well as the limitations which it can place on an isolated and poor nation. How it can be filled with beauty, and how it can be used to manipulate. However, the play is also about many other things. Among them, it is about the inability of outsiders to truly know a culture which is not native to them, and the harm that a nation will inevitably cause when it imposes its culture on another. It is about the intolerance and abuse of power which arise when one people are under the yoke of another. It is about the pain and suffering which can result from ill-considered, random violent reaction. It is also about the loyalty an individual owes to his country and people. And the difficulty of determining the proper course of action to exercise it.

Translations is poetic and rich in symbolism. Note the heretofore mute Sarah who struggles to speak ("My name is Sarah") only to lose her will to do so in the face of British imperialism. However, it is also about flesh and blood human beings experiencing life as people have through the centuries and continue to do so today. It is about the pain of being poor and without hope, and the joy of caring for others, of learning, of literature, and of embracing life with curiosity and receptiveness.

Niall Buggy as Hugh, the headmaster, gives vivid life to a tattered but still roaring lion in winter. David Costabile is most sympathetic as his well meaning but ineffectual older son, Manus. Costabile projects the lack of belief in himself of a man who realizes that he is doomed to always make the wrong decisions. As younger son and Army employee Owen, Alan Cox displays a brashness and sense of superiority over those whom he had left behind in Baile Beag, and the deflation which comes when Owen begins to doubt the course that he has taken. Dermot Crowley as Hugh's old buddy Jimmy Jack, Hugh's meeker but loyal companion in war and literature, is a mellifluous dispenser of literature and poetry. His dream is to marry the goddess Athene.

Much pleasure is provided by the buoyant performances of Chandler Williams and Susan Lynch as cartographer Lt. Yolland and Maire. They infuse joyful life to the roles of two young people who are animated by their belief in possibilities. Michael FitzGerald as farmer-student Doalty is convincingly a young, simple man, happy enough with his marginal existence until he becomes engaged and agitated when circumstances threaten the thread of his simple life. Geraldine Hughes and Morgan Hallett provide individuality and interest as students Bridget and Sarah, respectively. Graeme Malcolm is most believably villainous as the cruelly efficient Captain Lancey.

Garry Hynes, the founder and artistic director of Galway (and Tony Award winner for her direction of The Beauty Queen of Leenane) has directed with clarity, sensitivity and fervor. The three-act play is performed with one intermission which occurs in the middle of the second act. This deprives us of a satisfying coda to the scene (described below) which occurs at the end of the second act. If, as is the common wisdom today, audiences are made unhappy by the presence of two intermissions, then the solution applied here is likely as satisfactory as any available.

The large, realistic set and evocative period costume design by Francis O'Connor greatly enhance the play. O'Connor's designs are abetted by the rich and complex lighting design of Davy Cunningham. The set is so realistic that upon first view of the hay strewn, dirt encrusted floor, you expect to have your olfactory senses assaulted.

For Translations, Friel has written an extraordinarily funny and beautiful love scene. The warmth, tenderness and handsome grace of Lt. Yolland and the beauty and fresh enthusiasm of Maire have sparked strong feeling between the two despite the fact that neither can understand the language of the other. In this scene, their attitudes, inflections and body language allow them to communicate to one another their feelings even as the specific meaning of each one's words is lost to the other. The futility of their improvised gestures to translate words not only evokes our laugher, but it also makes Yolland and Maire laugh. This is because their gestures enhance their display of the happiness that each has found in the other. Under the artful direction of Gerry Hynes, Susan Lynch and Chandler Williams bring out all the joy and nuance for which the brilliant words of Brian Friel have so cleverly provided the framework. A quintessential scene in an excellent production, it exemplifies the triumph which this Translations is for author, director and cast.

Translations continues performances ( Eves: Wed., Thurs. & Sun. 7:30 p.m./ Fri. & Sat. 8 p.m./ Mats: Sat. 3p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m. –no eve. perf. 10/28) through October 29, 2006 at the McCarter Theatre Center (Matthews Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540. Box Office: 609-258-2787. Online:

Translations By Brian Friel; Directed By Garry Hynes

Manus…………………….David Costabile
Sarah……………………..Morgan Hallett
Jimmy Jack……………....Dermot Crowley
Maire…………………………...Susan Lynch
Doalty………………..Michael Fitzgerald
Bridget………………….Geraldine Hughes
Hugh…………………………….Niall Buggy
Owen………………………………...Alan Cox
Captain Lancey…………..Graeme Malcolm
Lieutenant Yolland……chandler Williams

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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