Translations, the first of three plays by Brian Friel (1929-2015) constituting Irish Rep’s entire season this year, was in the opinion of its author “a play about language and only about language.” In fact, Friel felt it “should be written in Irish,” but, considering the marketplace, he succumbed to English. Penned and presented in 1980 at the peak of The Troubles, the play harkens back almost a century and a half to earlier troubles when the British exercised a kind of cultural appropriation of Ireland, renaming the local towns by replacing the Gaelic with English.
Helpful production notes inform the audience that “the Irish characters in Translations speak English on stage for the benefit of a presumably English-speaking audience. However, given the setting of 1833 Donegal, the audience is to assume the Irish characters are speaking their native tongue.”
Doug Hughes, who’s directing this current production, waves away the built-in problems he has inherited. “I chose not to consider the play that way,” he tells Observer. “I think of it as a great opportunity. It’s super-smart. What I wish to commend is the fact it is structured brilliantly and Friel beautifully handles complex themes to do with language and colonialism and political violence. Assembling the play, he keeps instructing himself, ‘Sure, the play’s about the British occupation, but it must concern itself only with the exploration of the dark and private places of individual souls.’ I think he did that. It has ten great roles. There’s not a bad role in the play.”
Two roles in particular—a British engineer who admires the Irish language but can’t speak it (Raffi Barsoumian) and an Irish lass who wants to learn English to emigrate to the U.S. (Mary Wiseman)—meld into a love scene, minus the traditional trappings of sweet nothings. “That’s the task Friel set for himself,” Hughes underlines. “I will really speak a heresy here and say I’d put this love scene up against the balcony scene any day. In fact, I’d rather see this scene than the balcony scene. It’s his decision to make a beautiful sport out of the language barrier. That scene was fun to rehearse. We always approached it with a great deal of ease and pleasure.”
Then, there’s Sarah (Erin Wilhelmi), a young girl with a speech defect who has trouble saying her own name—symbolic, of course, of Ireland losing its own voice to these British interlopers.
The setting is a mangy, abandoned barn where non-English is illegally taught by Hugh (Sean McGinley), the chronically drunk hedge-schoolmaster of Baile Beag (“Small Town,” a frequent setting in Friel plays). “The very fact that hedge-schools where Latin and Greek and Irish are the fixtures of the curriculum, is, in itself, a life-affirming act,” Hughes says. “There are accounts of travelers through Donegal in the early 19th century who report the peasantry was far better educated than the gentry. As a result of these schools—an underground phenomenon for much of the time—the sessions of the schools had to be conducted in secret for many years.”
Hugh’s two sons—Manus (Owen Campbell) and Owen (Seth Numrich)—could not be more opposite. The crippled Manus defiantly speaks Irish in front of the British, while Owen works part-time for the Brits, providing English translations of place names in Ireland. “That sense of limitation and oppression is most definitely a part of the landscape when the lights go up,” says Hughes. “But people are, when the play begins, pushing back the darkness in their lives.”
Hughes and Translations go back a long way—back to the beginning. “Friel’s company had just premiered the play in Derry in North Ireland at the height of The Troubles. They had to go through checkpoints to get to rehearsal. It was a political act to produce it in that climate.”
Hughes read it right away and was instrumental in setting up its 1981 New York premiere when he was Associate Artistic Director at a then-humbler Manhattan Theater Club on East 73rd Street.
“We campaigned for the rights to the play and, kinda surprisingly, got them,” he happily remembers. “Joe Dowling, who had worked with Friel on it, came over and made his American debut.”
To star in that 1981 edition, Hughes played his ace: Broadway’s Tony-winning Da, Barnard Hughes, happened to be Doug Hughes’ own da but needed convincing. At first, the elder Hughes was reluctant. “I don’t know if I can afford to do the play,” he averred. To which his son shot back, “You cannot afford not to do it.”
Since its American debut 42 years ago, Translations has been back for two Broadway revivals—one in 1995 directed by Howard Davies with Brian Dennehy, and one in 2006 directed by Garry Hynes with Alan Cox.
“It’s actually quite strange to me that I didn’t get around to doing a Translations of my own before,” Hughes admits a bit sheepishly, adding another first: “This is my first time at Irish Rep.”
The Irish Rep’s main officers will take up the directorial megaphone for the remainder of The Friel Project. Artistic Director Charlotte Moore will do Aristocrats (Jan. 11-March 3), and Producing Director Ciaran O’Reilly will follow with Philadelphia, Here I Come (March 14-May 5).
Hughes finds himself easily moved by Friel’s writing. “I’ll speak very specifically to Translations: The incredible effort he made to offer something that allowed for a discourse in Ireland that wasn’t confrontational or full of hatred. He waded into waters where this could have been a political play. It handles serious issues. It has a kind of politics, but it’s so embracing of human life. He is chasing a brutal situation and doing artistic work. There’s a very big difference here.
“I’d love for audiences to be fascinated by the transportation it offers to a kind of forgotten moment in time—and to a phenomenon of a language that existed and had a staggering rich tradition being barely kept alive. I hope, for a moment, they think about how history actually happens, that while people are trying to get enough to eat, people are also trying to learn a little something. This Translations is abundant with life. I’m proud the production reveals that.”