Monday, June 4, 2018

Translations and An Ideal Husband: Classic Plays by Irish Playwrights

Adetomiwa Edun, Colin Morgan, and Seamus O'Hara in Translations. (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

Brian Friel’s 1980 Translations, one of the great works in the modern repertory, dramatizes the earliest phrase of the Irish “troubles,” nearly a century before the term was coined for the Easter 1916 rebellion. Friel’s play is set in the rural town of Baile Beag in County Donegal in 1833, where the British Army has sent an expedition to draft a new map of the territory that Anglicizes – and implicitly alters irrevocably – the old Irish place names, which memorialize locals long dead, incidents long ago fictionalized, a mythology as well as a history. I last saw the play in a first-rate production by Garry Hynes on Broadway in 2007; the new revival at the National Theatre, directed by Ian Rickson, is just as good, and thanks to the work of the set designer Rae Smith and the lighting designer Neil Austin (as well as Rickson’s expressive staging), it’s even more beautiful to behold. The hedge-school that Hugh (Ciarán Hinds), the aging, alcoholic classics master, conducts in his home with the assistance of his son Manus (Seamus O’Hara) is a downstage playing area in suggested-realist style that morphs into expressionism as the set takes us into the surrounding countryside beyond. As the characters enter, Austin’s lighting silhouettes them against flashes of red, which is especially striking when the British officers, Captain Lancey (Rufus Wright) and young Lieutenant Yolland (Adetomiwa Edun), who is in charge of the actual mapmaking, appear to introduce themselves. When the scene shifts to evening at the top of the second act, specials hover above the stage, creating strange, cylindrical metaphors for starlight, and the field upstage of the hedge-school is dotted with lanterns. Gorgeous.

Friel (who died, after a prolific career, in 2015) works every possible variation on the title, which explores the impossibility of separating out the personal from the political. In the opening scene, Manus coaxes Sarah (Michelle Fox), who struggles to get out words and usually relies on a kind of improvised sign language to communicate, into reciting her name; it’s a painful process for her but as she adores him (a fact he seems unware of) she does it to please him, and the accomplishment is a small yet genuine triumph. Manus, like his father, is a scholar of Latin and Greek. Their most gifted student, ironically dubbed “the infant prodigy,” is a man of Hugh’s vintage, Jimmy Jack Cassie (Dermot Crowley, recreating the whimsical performance he gave in Hynes’s 2007 production), who reads Homer with the delight of a schoolboy thrilled by a book of fairy tales – and like a deeply imaginative schoolboy, he experiences the story as if it were real, laughing with surprise at the pronouncements of the gods, recounting parts of it as if it were local gossip, and ultimately determining that he himself is going to marry Pallas Athene. His classmates are Doalty (Laurence Kinlan), an indifferent student who likes to play the clown, and Bridget (Aiofe Duffin, a memorable Kate in the Globe’s Taming of the Shrew two summers ago), who works hard at her sums. Maire (Judith Roddy) brings milk from her family’s farm in exchange for lessons. She and Manus have been a couple of some time; he assumes they’ll marry, but Roddy’s restlessness around him and her careful distance from him make it clear to us that Maire’s feelings for him have changed. Everyone in Baile Beag speaks Irish, but she wants Hugh to teach her English; she believes it’s the language of the future, and her dream is to emigrate to America. Manus, though, feels tied to his father, who, we learn, tripped over him, drunk, when Manus was a child and crippled one of his legs; in a reversal that feels psychologically right, Manus has felt responsible for Hugh ever since. Maire urges him to apply for the position of head of the new (English-run) national school, but Hugh has already put himself forward for it, and Manus insists that he couldn’t go up against his father. He does get a job offer to run his own hedge-school in another part of Ireland – in Inishmaan, on the western coast. “How will you like to live on an island?” he asks Maire, as if he were a genie in an Arabian Nights tale offering her three wishes. It seems remarkable that he can’t see what we see – that he’s offering to take her out of one sort of rural confinement only so he can place her in another. But then, it’s Hugh and not Manus she has asked for English lessons; she’s keeping her own counsel about the future she envisions for herself.

Hugh’s other son, Owen (Colin Morgan), who has been living in Dublin, arrives in the middle of the opening scene. He’s the son who got out of Baile Beag as soon as he could manage it, and he has used his English – learned, like Manus’s, under his father’s tutelage – to make a career for himself as a translator. When he presents himself in the pay of the English, acting as an intermediary between his old neighbors and the officers – his “translations” of their English into Gaelic are instinctively modified to grease the lines of communication between them – and as an aide to George Yolland in making the map, his brother is amazed, even appalled. Manus resists the English presence, though in a quieter, more passive way than the offstage Donnelly twins, students in the hedge-school who are notable by their absence as they’re off planning, then staging, acts of rebellion against the colonials. While the other locals look at Lancey and Yolland with a mixture of bafflement and discomfort, unable to understand a thing they’re saying, Manus understands them perfectly but refuses to speak English to them – even to George, who falls in love with Baile Beag and approaches his task, and the townspeople, with humility and with embarrassment at not knowing their language. He and Owen become friends, and their task of converting the old place names, which George finds lyrical and enchanting, to some rough, more accurate, English equivalent ends up bedeviling both of them. Owen is the protagonist of the play: when he takes on the job of translator, he does so without realizing how it will put him back in touch with the home he believes he has renounced for good and all. George Yolland is the tragic character. No one me meets in Baile Beag is moved by his efforts to get to know the place, his affection for the landscape and his respect for the people; they just find him odd, though Doalty does him a small good turn that George is immensely touched by. (Manus tells him, in Gaelic he knows George can’t comprehend, that he can understand a man like Captain Lancey, but it’s the Yollands he finds unfathomable.) No one, that is, except Maire, who falls in love with him and with whom he falls in love. Their courtship scene, in which they speak to each other in phrases the other can’t understand while their feelings need no translation at all, is a marvel of sympathetic imagination; eventually George turns to the poetic place-names he’s learned to pronounce from Owen, using them as a kind of verbal foreplay, and she responds in kind. And if the locals ignored Yolland before, this crossing of cultural boundaries they most assuredly do not ignore – it stirs them to violence.

Dermot Crowley and Ciarán Hinds. (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

The most complicated of the characters is Hugh, who would seem to fall in the camp of Irish tradition, like Manus, but who agrees to teach Maire English, even though he finds it a dismayingly plebeian tongue. He is sage enough to know that he can’t fight what is coming inevitably to Baile Beag. But if Manus’s crippled leg is a symbol (a rather bald one) of incapacity, the way in which the past hobbles the ability of the townspeople to move into the future, then Hugh’s alcoholism is a symbol for his paralysis. The final scene of the play begins with Hugh and Jimmy Jack returning from a funeral half-blind with drink after everything has fallen apart: George has disappeared, no doubt murdered by the Donnelly twins; Manus, the most likely suspect because he went after George after finding out about him and Maire, has made a desperate and certainly futile attempt to run away; Maire is half-mad with worry and grief. Here Friel is quoting the end of Sean O’Casey’s great Juno and the Paycock, where the two old men, Captain Boyle and Joxer Daly, stumble onstage deep in their cups after the last disaster has occurred to the Boyle family.

In Rickson’s production, this is one of the two scenes that doesn’t quite work (the other is a slightly earlier one focused on Maire after she discovers that George is missing) – at least, it didn’t the night I saw the show, though it was still in previews and perhaps it has been worked through since. I thought Rickson and the actors were attenuating it, embroidering it. Otherwise I have only praise for the actors, especially Hinds, who gives a majestic performance as Hugh. However, the placing of Adetomiwa Edun, who is Anglo-African, in the role of George struck me as a rather foolish implementation of color-blind casting. He could have played any of the Irish characters; why the hell would you cast a black man as one of the two representatives in Friel’s play of a colonial civilization?

An Ideal Husband , currently in revival in the West End, is the third of Oscar Wilde’s three “comedies of society”; it was written in 1894 and performed, like his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, in 1895, months before he was sent to prison for "homosexual crimes". These plays – Lady Windermere’s Fan and A Woman of No Importance are the others – are mixtures of high comedy and melodrama, and I’ve always felt that the shift in tone doesn’t work for Wilde the way it does for other playwrights, like George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber in The Royal Family and Dinner at Eight. Perhaps that’s because Kaufman and Ferber don’t have such grandiose ideas. In An Ideal Husband an English politician with impeccable moral credentials, Lord Chiltern (a handsomely bearded but essentially dull Nathanael Parker), is blackmailed with a skeleton in his closet: his fortune is built upon his having revealed a government secret in his youth. His confession to his wife Gertrude (Sally Bretton) shakes up their marriage because she has always placed him on a pedestal and is shocked to discover that he has not always been the man she imagined him to be; she has to rethink her ideals in a husband and her conviction that people are either good or bad, just as he has to acknowledge the mistakes of his past. Unlike Ibsen’s modified melodramas with unsettling finales and Shaw’s ironic comedies, An Ideal Husband resolves itself through plot devices, and the woman who puts the screws to Chiltern in the first place, Mrs. Cheveley (Frances Barber), is herself a device. Except for her witty repartee – part of the high-comic side of the play – there’s little to distinguish this character from any other melodramatic villain: not only does she manipulate him out of self-interest (she demands that he support a morally suspect scheme in the House of Lords in order that she and her friends may benefit from it financially) but she doesn’t even need the money; what she enjoys most is her own nefariousness. When she isn’t entertaining the audience with her priceless bon mots, she’s twirling an invisible mustache. And she does seem to furnish evidence for Gertrude’s all-or-nothing view of humanity, though Wilde doesn’t note the irony.

Edward Fox as the Earl of Caversham in Jonathan Church's revival of An Ideal Husband. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Wilde had radical social and political ideas away from the stage, but as a theatrical darling (before his disgrace, of course) writing for aristocrats, he was not in a position to contribute a work that really shook the foundations of society; you wouldn’t expect a play like Mrs. Warren’s Profession or The Wild Duck from him. But what remains doesn’t have much substance. The only successful aspect of An Ideal Husband is the comedy of manners, and despite Bretton’s intelligent, emotionally grounded performance, it’s the only convincing part of Jonathan Church’s production. (Visually the show is not especially accomplished: Church doesn’t do much with the staging, and neither Simon Higlett’s sets nor Howard Harrison’s lighting is more than adequate.) Wilde creates a confidant for Chiltern, Lord Goring (Freddie Fox), a viscount who lives a determinedly superficial life. Particularly in Fox’s charming performance, Goring feels like an only slightly earlier version of Algernon in Earnest, and the play picks up whenever he appears – especially since there isn’t nearly enough of the jaded socialites, Joanna Van Kampen as Mrs. Marchmont and Rebecca Charles as The Countess of Basildon, whom Wilde has given the best lines in the party scene that opens the play. The funniest exchanges are between Goring and his aging father, the Earl of Caversham, who bemoans his son as a wastrel while Goring thinks his father is a bore. In this production Caversham is played by Freddie Fox’s real-life father, the astonishingly deft Edward Fox, who has been delighting stage and film audiences for decades. (His biography in the playbill offers merely, “Edward Fox is an actor with a very long career.”) At eighty-one, Fox Sr. can still get extraordinary mileage out of a line, and his banter with his son is joyous.

The plot does give Goring a modicum of depth: he rescues his friends the Chilterns from Mrs. Cheveley’s clutches. And Wilde gives him a high-comic match: he pleases his father, who is anxious for him to marry, by proposing to Chiltern’s witty kid sister Mabel (played with much personality by Faith Omole). Church – like many directors staging Wilde for a twenty-first-century audience – and Fox Jr. reference Wilde’s sexuality by making Goring rather flamboyant in a couple of scenes, but we certainly don’t feel at the end that marrying Mabel is any sort of defeat for the character. We feel that he’s earned his reward.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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