Review: Translations ~ theatre notes

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Review: Translations

Translations by Brian Friel, directed by David Mealor. Design by Kerry Reid, lighting design Geoff Cobham. With William Allert, Michaela Cantwell, Elena Carapetis, Lizzy Falkland, Patrick Frost, John Kelly, Andrew Martin, Dominic Pedlar, Stephen Sheehan, Geoff Revell and Rory Walker. Flying Penguin Productions @ the Malthouse, until December 10.

Wandering through Irish galleries earlier this year, I was struck by the the similarities between Irish and Australian art around the turn of the last century. Ireland has, for example, its equivalents to post-Impressionist artists like Tom Roberts. If you felt like it, you could group most of this work neatly under the heading "Colonial Art".

But there are vast differences as well: we certainly don't have a visionary genius of the status of Jack B. Yeats painting in the early 20th century. And one genre of visual art that Australia almost completely lacks is that of the heroic revolutionary: the closest we got to anything like revolution was the little massacre of incipient capitalists at the Eureka Stockade in 1854.

Irish art is, by its very definition, political. Much of its seminal modern literature - Synge and Yeats, for example - is deeply veined with the issue of Irish nationalism. The inability to escape the "Irish question" may in part explain the fact that two of its most famous sons, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, were, equally famously, expatriates.

That same question is also, after all, responsible for a lot of sentimental kitsch, from the shamrock-laden souvenir shops in Dublin to Irish Australia's romance with the "old country" to the sodden cliches about alcoholic Irishmen with the hearts of poets. One can understand any writer's ambivalence towards his or her culture, but in Ireland's case it is particularly vexed. The issue of British occupation still runs deep and bitter, and much Irish art, overtly or covertly, constellates with varying degrees of suspicion around the questions of Irish nationalism, identity and rebellion.

In the late 20th century, many writers were influenced by the post-colonial critique pioneered by thinkers like Edward Said. They were, among other things, questioning the 19th century verities about Irish nationalism, when the continuing violence of the British occupation of Northern Ireland threw these issues into sharp relief. Among these artists was Brian Friel, who with the actor Stephen Rea founded the influential Field Day Theatre Company in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1980.

Field Day attracted a number of Irish artists (among others were the novelist Seamus Deane and the poets Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin). Field Day has also published widely - its releases include anthologies of Irish writing and a series of pamphlets by intellectuals such as Deane himself, Edward Said and Terry Eagleton - that place its theatre work firmly in the context of post-colonial thought.

The first play this company produced was the work widely considered to be Friel's masterpiece, Translations. Perhaps more directly than any of his plays, Translations illustrates this perceptive comment of Seamus Deane's:

Friel is unique his recognition that Irish temperament and Irish talk has a deep relationship to Irish desolation and the sense of failure. It is not surprising that his drama evolves, with increasing sureness, towards an analysis of the behaviour of language itself and, particularly, by the ways in which that behaviour, so ostensibly within the power of the individual, is fundamentally dictated by historical circumstances. His art, therefore, remains political to the degree that it becomes an art ensnared by, fascinated by, its own linguistic medium. This is not obliquely political theatre. This is profoundly political, precisely because it is so totally committed to the major theatrical medium of words.
This broadens Friel's concerns far beyond specifically Irish concerns. As its title suggests, Translations is a play about language: in particular, about the power of naming. It is set in 1833, when the British Army Engineer Corps conducted a major ordnance survey of Ireland, mapping and renaming the entire country. The act of colonisation is always also an act of language, as the governmental spin on in the invasion of Iraq shows all too clearly: and description is, as Said has argued, one of the first acts of colonisation. In Translations, Friel explores some of its ramifications, one of which was the death of the Irish language as a living tongue.

Perhaps what is most admirable about this play is how Friel has explored a subject that is, in his own country, of white-hot emotive power while evading easy vulgarisation or sentimentality. This compelling drama drives its exploration into the heart of language itself, as a living entity that both makes realities and is made by them. Friel refuses to present a simplistic view of the brutal British stamping down the rebellious Irish: rather, he gives a nuanced reading of the tangled relationships between language, power and identity.

And, although Friel is very clear-sighted about the realpolitick that attends cultural engineering, this play is by no means a simplistic nostalgic lament for the death of Gaelic. "Yes, [Irish] is a rich language, Lieutenant," Hugh remarks to Yolland, "full of the mythologies of fantasy and hope and self-deception - a syntax opulent with tomorrows. ...But remember that words are signals, counters. They are not immortal. It can happen... that a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of fact."

Set in a Hedge School in an Irish-speaking community in County Donegal, Translations covers the events of a few days in the life of a tiny community. The school is run by Hugh (Andrew Martin) and his son Manus (Rory Walker) and their adult pupils vary from the wild-haired Maire (Elena Carapetis), who demands to be taught English since Latin and Greek are no use to her, to Jimmy (Patrick Frost) who can quote reams of Ovid and Homer and to whom the Greek Gods are as real as any of his fellow villagers.

The drama begins as Manus' brother Owen (William Allert), who has left the village and found a well-paid job working for the British as a translator, returns home with two British officers, Yolland (Stephen Sheehan) and Lancey (Geoff Revell). Yolland, a shy romantic and a bad fit in the colonial system, finds himself falling in love with the countryside and the music of a language that he doesn't understand and, in particular, with Maire. Lancey, on the other hand, is there to do his job as efficiently as he can: to rename the land in the King's English.

The central scene in this play is a moving and funny dialogue between Yolland and Maire. Friel uses the conceit of replacing Irish for English, so while all the dialogue is transparent to us, it is not to all his characters: he exploits the comic possibilities of miscommunication and misunderstanding with a dab hand.

When Yolland and Maire slip out from a dance and attempt to express their mutual desire while barely having a word in common, Friel explores delicate human realities that language can, in fact, distort or conceal. These realities, he suggests, have very little to do with words. The tentative beginnings of mutual understanding expressed in this scene lead to tragic and brutal consequences, a fair metaphor for the bloody political dilemma of Ireland itself.

Flying Penguin have mounted a beautiful production of this play. Kerry Reid's design sets the tone: it is a naturalistic representation of the byre in which the scenes are set, aside from the Irish writing that covers every wall. David Mealor heightens the artifice by introducing John Kelly as a narrator, who reads Friel's stage directions at the beginning of the play, and by making the actors direct most of their speeches out to the audience; but otherwise he lovingly details it as the naturalistic drama it is. He has drawn excellent performances from his diverse cast, who work as tightly as an ensemble, though perhaps it isn't unfair to pick out Andrew Martin's magisterial performance of Hugh as a highlight.

Watching Translations, I couldn't help reflecting on what has happened to the naturalistic play in Australia. It hasn't been treated well: a while back, theatrical naturalism was colonised by television and voila! this fine form became synonymous with playwrights like David Williamson and Hannie Rayson, the apogee of dead bourgeois theatre. Yet it isn't as if it has always been a moribund form here - Peter Kenna and Richard Beynon wrote some fine naturalistic plays.

Still, its present zombiedom is a disappointing cul de sac for a theatrical form birthed by playwrights like Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov. There are profound pleasures to be had from seeing a superbly-written play done well. In its execution and intellectual context, Translations is an exemplary reminder that the naturalistic three-act play isn't necessarily a synonym for conservative, aesthetically bankrupt theatre.

Picture: Elena Carapetis (Maire) and Rory Walker (Yolland) in Translations. Photo: Shane Reid


Anonymous said...

Alison in the interest of brevity, I won't go into how important this blog has become to me. Suffice to say that, as a student of theatre, it is a rock of critical dialogue and intellectual stimulation in what are otherwise the choppy and barren waters of theatre criticism in this country. I thank you for that.

It's a bit strange, then, that my first comment (after having been a regular blogger for some months) should be to disagree with you. Not so strange, though - I agree with almost every word you write (most recently your reviews of Babes in the Wood, Pichet Klunchun and Myself and the remarkable Tragedia Endogonidia hit my nail squarely on the head) that I feel no real need to comment. But as the recent kafuffle (spelling, anyone?) over the @Risk show has seemed to suggest, perhaps the most fruitful critical dialogue can come when our opinions differ, and we attempt to understand why and how that happens.

I know 'Translations' relatively well, having seen it performed by the VCA Graduating Company 2005 several times last year. So I found your discussion of the play itself, and both its and our own cultural and political contexts, intriguing and edifying. I agree wholeheartedly that the play is an incredibly powerful and significant work of language. I think, though, that like many plays of its quality (Beckett's work, for example, or Shakespeare's) it is a very difficult play to get right theatrically. VCA's admirable but ultimately unsuccessful production of it suggested this to me, and Flying Penguin's confirmed it.

There were doubtless some fine peformances. Though here is my first point of contention. In contrast to Andrew Martin's Hugh, which I found bombastic and overly theatrical (an outdated style unfortunately common in our 'seasoned actor' types, which I think often has more to do with the actor's performative ego rather than the work itself) I was enthralled by Stephen Sheehan's sensitive and unusual rendering of Yolland, intrigued and amused by Lizzy Falkland's utterly believable village girl in Bridget, and moved by the sheer power of Elena Carpetis's fiesty and eventually maddened Maire.

On the other hand I found the performances sufficiently uneven to prevent me from fully entering the world of the play. Without wanting to put too fine a point on it, I found William Allert's Owen completely off kilter with the rest of the ensemble, and at times (to use that now-famous term) bum-aching. Yes, to the point of physical discomfort. Moreover, while each of the actors brought great detail and interest to their characters, I often got the sense that they were not in the same play.

Flying Penguin's professed vision is to become Australia's leading 'Actors Theatre Company' - if they are serious about this vision, I think they need to re-assess not only the actors they are working with, but perhaps the rehearsal processes they engage in to develop work. During the 'Time to Talk' after the show tonight, there was some discussion about how such a large group of actors from diverse training and experience backgrounds manages to work together. Several of the actors talked about the importance of 'expediency', that idea 90% of the actor's work is done 'outside the rehearsal room', and that working with actors from different training backgrounds is only a problem when they become 'indulgent' and 'take up too much time' on the rehearsal floor. Granted, the restrictions of the short rehearsal processes imposed on theatre companies these days by lack of financial support mean that time is literally money, but in fact I think this construction-line attitude is one of the central problems with the mainstream theatre in this country.

Time and again we see the [insert any oft-berated state theatre company or Bell Shakespeare here] churn out well-polished, beautifully framed and lit productions, often with standout performances, but without a sense of the ensemble inhabiting and owning a piece of work as an act of communal artistic creation. Instead we have a Hollywood model where big TV names headline a cast of (generally extremely talented) actors who are churned through a four week rehearsal, guided by a director whose primary goal from the outset is to 'get the thing on'. Without the opportunity to explore and 'play' the text together, as an ensemble, I don't see how an 'actor's theatre company' like Flying Penguin can expect to create work of the kind of unified vision and power that a text like Friel's demands. Although the obvious examples are international companies, we have plenty of examples to turn to at home, both in the past and, more recently, companies like Ariette Taylor's, liminal and Eleventh Hour.

Ultimately, this requires the leadership of the director. With this as his debut, David Mealor certainly seems promising, if for no other reason than his bold choices of significant and difficult texts (the company's next project is Sondheim's 'Assassins'). I agree with you that some of the fine detail of the production is evidence of Mealor's loving direction. However I'm not sure this love is enough. The addition of the narrator character (a big call in a play that already has a large cast)
promised some interesting exploration of the play's theatricality with the reading of stage directions, but ultimately proved irrelevant and felt like a tack-on. The set, for me, was similarly trite - the squat wooden flats reminded me of a highschool Rock Eisteddfodd, right down to the painted writing on the walls, and completely failed to set the appropriate, or in fact any kind, of atmosphere. Interestingly the actors mentioned that the original production in Adelaide was situated on a much longer stage, so the set was stretched out. I'm not sure if this would have improved its effect, but to my eye in the Beckett it crowded the actors out physically and visually.

It strikes me that your review spends the majority of its time discussing Friel's text, and only really two paragraphs on the production itself. I wonder whether, given the possibilities of the text, part of you wanted this production to be better than it in fact was. I know I did. Come to think of it, the reverse is just as possible - that my high expectations of the text blinded me to some of the production's achievements.

Regardless, I think you are right to defend the naturalistic play against what is often lazy and uninformed dismissal of it as a form. 'Translations' is undoubtedly a testament to its continued relevance and potential. For me, though, this production of it proves that plays like these are slippery and difficult beasts. They are to actors' ensembles perhaps as symphonies are to orchestras - providing profound pleasures but also potentially deadly pitfalls (alliteration not intended, just getting tired). They need to be tackled with a depth and cohesion of vision that meets that of the text itself, and cannot be subject to rehearsal processes governed by the 'expediency' of our society's market economics. As Daniel so poignantly discussed in the Rex Cramphorne lecture, theatre in its essentially communal and anarchic nature might still be a site of joyous and playful protest against this insidious rationalist trend.

Wow, that was a rant. Can't fathom the idea of editing or even reading over it, so I apologise for its length. But thank you again for so dedicatedly and lovingly creating this space for us to rant in. I see now that blogging is a bit like Pringles. Once you pop...


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Ben: firstly, thank you, and not only for the nice things you say. I was just beginning to lose faith in the possibility of open critical dialogue - silly really, when there are so many fabulous correspondents on this blog - and here you are, reminding me of its possibility.

You're quite correct that I rather glossed the production in that review, although I only noticed that after I had written it. And, as you say, perhaps that is a sign in itself. Although I'll also say that another motive behind that review was showing what a "critical context" might possibly be - something rather more interesting than immediate response in newspapers, but the placing of one's work in a living, dynamic context that includes, well, thinkers and artists like those I mentioned, coupled with an awareness of the society one lives in.

Your comments on the acting are acute and interesting; they make me think I should probably have backgrounded myself a little better on the company. Myself, in the right circumstances, I rather like that "actorly" quality, and Martin's performance seemed like the right circumstances to me, and appropriate to that character. But probably in this case, the production was decent enough to release my deep pleasure in hearing the play, and that probably led my response.

Anonymous said...

Alison, Ben, Hello and good evening.
This is my first post here and I have to say I've only just been introduced to this whole blogging thing and find your blog spot, Alison very interesting, exciting and... 'Oh no, another thing that is going to keep me glued to my screen!!'

A couple of comments. I was in the MTC production of this great play back in the Russel Street days. Can't remember the year but it ws a while ago. Ray Lawler directed it. I wont get to see this production but like many good works, a play can survive all manner of productions. It is a great play. So clever without being smart, it's poetic, funny, romantic, political and a whole bunch of things that my mind can't recall !

But Ben, I wanted to say (apart from how the clarity and length of your post amazed me, and how you started with 'in the interest of brevity!!) that the question of rehearsal time is interesting. Sometimes, so long as you have a director who has done their home work, having a lot of time doesn't necessarily mean a good production. I used to do two weekly rep in the uk, and some of those shows were fantastic - not all by any means. There again that could be the memory going on a nostalgia trip.

Thanks Alison

william zappa

Alison Croggon said...

Hi William

Great to see you here! I'm hoping to get up to see The Nightwatchman in Sydney (obviously, not to review it - there are limits even for TN). Looking forward immensely to seeing something of Daniel's that isn't in French.

Re your comment on rehearsals: it's interesting that Romeo Castelluci, avant garde director extraordinaire, insists on very short rehearsal periods. And certainly, it's said so often it's a truism that the initial reading of a play can have something that is never subsequently found in rehearsals. One reason I really enjoy readings.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Alison,
Yes it would be a tough call reviewing Nightwatchman.

I have to agree, readings can be so good. Basically just the words and the voice. No overlaid interpretation or concept. Many a great play has been laid to rest under the guise of interpretaion.

On another subject that Tim Blair place is a little scary.


Anonymous said...

What happened? to Yolland?