Sometimes a play is easy to watch; sometimes, difficult. This has little to do with quality, or enjoyment, in my mind. For example, “Paper Dolls” at Mosaic was easy enough to watch – but I thought the quality was lacking. “Translations”, Brian Friel’s 1980 play which we saw the other night at the Studio, was difficult to watch, and excellent.
Some plays are difficult to watch because they portray very unpleasant things, such as a play, say, about child abuse. Some are difficult to watch because they hit too close to home – say portraying your ethnic or religious group very negatively. Neither is the case with “Translations”, at least not for me. “Translations” is difficult to watch because of language – and this is all right because “Translations” is, in many respects, a play about language.
“Translations” takes place in a village in Donegal, Ireland, in the 1830s. The British are trying to Anglify Ireland by eliminating the teaching of Gaelic in the schools, and changing the names of cities, towns, rivers and hills from Irish to English. The Irish, many of whom speak Gaelic but no English, are not very happy. The British don’t care.
The characters in the play include a crusty alcoholic who runs a private “hedge school”. He speaks English, but doesn’t want to, but he also is fluent in Latin and Ancient Greek, which he believes all educated people need to know and which he spouts from time to time. He is accompanied by an old man whose mind wanders, and who appears homeless, but is always accompanied by his Greek and Latin books, and who seems to have a personal relationship with some of the Greek gods. The school teacher has two sons – one who lives at home and is unemployed; the other who has moved to Dublin and seems to have started to make a success of himself. Then there are three young Irish women and another fella, none of whom seem to speak any English.
The Dubliners son goes to work for the British army and accompanies them back to his home town to help them map the area and change the geographic names. The younger British soldier falls in love with one of the Irish women, and she with him. The relationship does not prosper – but that’s a different story.
I want to talk about language. So you have characters who speak English and characters who speak only Gaelic and often they are communicating with each other. But the actors are all speaking English, no matter whether or not the character is speaking Gaelic. So you can have two characters speaking to each other (both in English, but one in Gaelic), so they cannot understand each other. And you can have a third character acting as translator, sometimes speaking in English and sometimes in Gaelic, but always in English. And it’s seamless.
But that’s not all. You also have these two characters spouting off in Latin and Greek – and they are really speaking Latin and Greek (although sometimes, the spouting is followed by a “what did I say?” to another character, who answers in English or Gaelic in English.
And everything happens in the thickest of Irish brogues (I am told in fact, that the characters are speaking with a Donegal accent), which makes everything – English, Gaelic in English, Latin and Greek – that much harder to absorb. But, as I say, it’s seamless.
The play debuted in Belfast in 1980 when the Republic/Northern Ireland relationship was at the top of the news and Belfast haunted by Catholic and Protestant gangs. It is just as apt today, both for historical and generalized societal reasons.
One other aside – although the play is set in the 1830s, the feel is more contemporary, and there is talk of emigration to the United States. There is also talk about potential potato blight. In fact, both of these topics are prescient. The blight had not come to Donegal but it would just ten years or so later – the great Irish blight which led to so many Irish fleeing their country for America. I don’t normally think about the timing of the Irish famine – or of the waves of Irish immigration here. So in addition to dealing with an imperial power exerting unnecessary influence on an isolated population, the play puts the Irish economic tragedy into historic perspective.
I recommend it highly – but it’s a toughie.