“But remember that words are signals, counters. They are not immortal. And it can happen – to use an image you’ll understand – it can happen that a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of... fact.”
Brian Friel has said that Translations is a play essentially about language, and I think he’s right to say that, but only if we accept that it is language which we primarily use to facilitate relationships — both those that we desire and those that we fear.
For those who have seen the play on stage, which I did last weekend at Northern Stage in Newcastle, you will be aware that by ‘language’, I am not simply talking about the words we speak to each other: I am thinking about the whole physical process and significance of language, and, crucially, what can happen in its absence. The character of Sarah, who might be said to embody the genius loci of the play, is seen in the opening scene being taught to say her own name by Manus, the lame scholar who fills in for his father, Hugh, head of the hedge school in fictional Baile Beag in rural North West Ireland where an intriguing mix of arithmetic and Classics is taught to an eclectic group of students.
“My… my na… my name. My name is… Sarah” we hear her exclaim to a clearly-delighted Manus, whose life is about to be shattered by words: their often simultaneous meanings and confused implications.
Captain Lancey and Lieutenant Yolland have arrived from England along with a “trained army” to conduct the first Ordnance Survey of the country, mapping six inches to the mile, for the benefit of the people of Ireland, the Empire and fair taxation. Or so tells Roland – actually Owen, Manus’s entrepreneurial brother, returning from Dublin after 6 years away – to the assembled class, where he acts as translator between his own people, fluent only in Gaelic and broken Greek and Latin, and not the King’s English being dictated to them by the arrival of the mapmakers.
If for Friel this is a play about language, for me it is a play about doubling, duality. The elephant in the room, of course, is our acceptance that we, an English audience, are watching and clearly listening to English-speaking actors pretending to speak Irish, and/or speaking an exaggerated version of King’s English, themselves failing to understand each other, even though every word in the play is intelligible. But that’s the core thematic doubling, one which is so obvious we quickly forget it. Others are more subtle. Owen – Roland – is the embodiment of how these reflections slowly manifest: a character who, when he first strides on to stage in a plush cream suit, so vivid, so clean and full of colour compared to the tatty garments the others wear, is instantly seen as a man of the ‘new’ Ireland: that of cosmopolitanism and commerce – not potatoes and pigs. And frolicking, drunk on poteen, with Yolland, casually coining new names for the places he has left behind, we might be forgiven for thinking that is all he is: someone who has ‘made it’, found a new life and wealth for himself. But, no: Owen, acting under the jurisdiction of Colonial Rule, becomes a man divided; a man who can conjure new names with the swipe of a pen, but is unable to forget the folktales and legends that are connected to the old ones. A man, therefore, quite literally caught between his past and his present – and, by association, his future.
He is, in many ways, the brother Máire – equally caught in a state of transition, or desired transition – should have been with: savvy, worldly, some might go as far as to say a ‘sell-out’, Owen has the spirit of adventure that Manus lacks. But is it Manus’s conservatism, or Máire’s ambition, that leads to their inevitable downfall? Complicatedly, it is both and neither: Máire’s desire to learn English, to begin a new life in America, where she won’t need worry about potato blights, is both a reaction to Manus’s stubborn desire to ape his father, and a consequence of a changing society more broadly – one which is literally and spiritually losing its connections to the land.
Readers familiar with my past theatre reviews will know that I am not trained in dramaturgy and such other technicalities, so my reactions to performance and the craft of staging and acting are based more on instinct that experience. One of the most intrinsically beautiful scenes in Translations occurs when Yolland and Máire flit off after the dance and attempt to show their lust to each other. And it is lust, not love: Yolland yearning for a rural quiet that his work seeks to undermine; Máire foolishly believing Yolland could whisk her away, hiccup-free, to a brave new world. In a symbolic moment of linguistic beauty, and another obvious example of doubling, they try to decode their language barriers, Máire inferring: “The grass must be wet, my feet are soaking”, to which Yolland unironically retorts: “Your feet must be wet, the grass is soaking.” This rhetorical device builds towards its conclusion, with Máire and Yolland speaking to understand, not to be heard. “Always”, they both say in their respective mother tongues, the word loaded with irony and foreshadowing.
There are many other examples throughout the play, most of them stemming from the double meanings to be found in abundance within Friel’s allusion-heavy text. Jimmy, a character who I’ve not mentioned, but who plays a key role and might be seen to represent the antithesis to the dumb Sarah, is a figure almost transcendent of the very specific time and space in which the play is set. Fluent in many languages, but more comfortable drunk on nostalgia than lucid in the present, he asks of Hugh, really of us, when contemplating his imagined wedding to the Goddess, Athene: “Is Athene sufficiently mortal or am I sufficiently Godlike for the marriage to be acceptable to her people and to my people?” It is a question which is comical in intent and execution, but one which, we must remember, he raises immediately after the far more authorial, didactic warning: “Do you know the Greek word endogamein? It means to marry within the tribe. And the word exogamein means to marry outside the tribe. And you don’t cross those borders casually – both sides get very angry.”
No doubt you’ve guessed that Translations is rich in word-play and double-entendre: a text which could be the focus of many a PhD. I first read it at A-level, and first saw it performed at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal in about 2005, at a time in my life when I was definitely more amused by Hugh’s bumbling alcoholism than by the play’s many undertones and reverberations.
Which is why I can imagine some people may have left feeling slightly cold, particularly by the ending. I came in to the play on the back of close analysis of the dialogue and allusions, and having seen it performed once before. I think, if I could level one flaw at Translations, it would be that it doesn’t wear those allusions lightly: the ambiances they create can be lost on a first watch. That is not to discredit the cast and production team: English Touring Theatre have really produced one of the most pitch-perfect pieces of theatre I have ever seen. I find it interesting – and heartening, clearly – that a play which I once merely admired has been brought headlong back into my consciousness to the point where I would recommend it to absolutely everyone and consider it a modern masterpiece.
To say the ending is oblique – much like the argument of most of this review – is not to say it is ineffective. Far from it. Personally, I love the the ambiguity of the ending, with a collapsed Hugh failing to recall another of his much-loved classical passages (in this case, Virgil’s Aeneid, which I confess, even now, I did have to Google) as the lights fade to black. I’ve noted a few reviewers who have been confused by this, and I say this not to massage my ego, but how? Yes: it isn’t the tying up of loose ends that we might expect from other narratives, especially those that centre around a love-triangle, but it is the ending Friel wrote, and it is the ending that this production has made the smart decision to keep. As the lights go down, the characters are literally and figuratively transported into a space of liminality, in which we – from a privileged place further along in this country’s complex history – know the likely outcome, we just don’t know how individual choices will shape the exact circumstances of it. It is a clear and swift move, which takes the focus off stage, back on to us, the spectators. At a time when countries continue to exhort military might on their neighbours and annexe much-argued-over regions, and at a time when – for reasons trivial and serious – our language continues to (d)evolve, artworks such as this can only hold mirrors to our faces and ask us what we might have to do with it all.