Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Rockville Little Theatre Translations

By • Feb 2nd, 2011 • Category: Reviews
Translations by Brian Friel
Rockville Little Theatre
F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, Rockville, MD
Through February 6th
2:00, with one intermission
$16/$14 Seniors and Students
Reviewed January 29th, 2011

Translations by Brian Friel is one of a series of plays set in fictional Baile Beag (Ballybeg), a small village at the heart of 19th century agricultural Ireland. Friel has said Translations is “a play about language and only about language” but it is really so much more. It takes place at the start of the British effort to close traditional Irish “Hedge Schools” in favor of English-language-only parochial schools, just prior to the Potato Famine of the 1840s. In the context of history, this simple description fails to convey the real core of the play – what happens when opposing sides refuse to communicate with each other, or simply fail to understand. Friel is well known for his investigation into Irish history and the effect of British rule over the people of Ireland. Several of his plays, Translations included, are required reading in A-level education.

The play revolves around a handful of villagers: Sarah (Julia Morrissey), Jimmy Jack (Tony Hacsi), Máire (Heather Benjamin), Bridget (Lizzi Albert) and Doalty (Patrick Miller). They attend the village’s clandestine Hedge School, where Manus (Tom Byrne) and his father Hugh (Michael Galizia) teach forbidden subjects such as the Irish language, writing, math, geography, Latin and Greek. We hear their dialogue as Irish-accented English.

Manus’ brother Owen (John Stange) returns after a six-year absence, bringing with him two British officers, part of a detachment of the Royal Engineers who are completing a mapping survey of Ireland. The survey is designed to ensure proper taxation of the Irish. It quickly becomes quite clear that while Owen may be “translating” between the two cultures, true communication between the Irish and British is not possible. The British, convinced that the Irish are beneath them, are as incomprehensible to the Irish as the resentful Irish-speaking villagers are to the British.

The boorish, intolerant leader, Captain Lancey (Phil Hosford), treats the language barrier as a hearing problem, by increasing his volume rather than attempting to understanding. Lieutenant Yolland (Scott Courlander) has more interest and affection for Ireland and the Irish, and a blossoming attraction to Máire, who Manus also loves. The communication failure is complete and disastrous.

It is clear from watching this performance that Jacy D’Aiutolo’s cast and team of artists have worked very hard to provide the best possible production. The actors have clearly done their homework for their characterizations. Kudos to Kenneth Lee and Melanie Papasian’s for their beautifully designed set, and to Chris Curtis’ lighting and D’Aiutolo’s sound design. Overall, production quality is among the highest I’ve seen.Only one thing mars RLT’s production.

To be fair, I understand that there is a “dead zone” of sound in the theatre space. Apparently, in that part of the house acoustics play havoc with the ability to hear actors, no matter how well they project. Because of this flaw in the sound, in combination with the actors’ impressively realistic Irish accents, the first act was ironically almost as hard for me to understand as it was for the English to understand their Irish counterparts. I do have a mild hearing loss, for which I wear hearing aids, but I was not alone in failing to understand some members of the cast. Although the second act is considerably clearer, unfortunately at least half a dozen people found it too hard to sit through to the end.

It’s a real shame, because it’s clear than an enormous amount of work went into producing this show.

My recommendation: The production is definitely worth seeing, but you’ll do best sitting in the first eight rows, or farther back than row K, to take full advantage of the theater’s acoustics.

Director’s Notes

It is sometimes difficult to remember that English, as the commonly-spoken language of a nation, is a relatively new development in Ireland. Certainly, by the 14th Century, English was commonly spoken in the Pale, but for the majority of Ireland, even for those under English rule, Irish was the spoken language of the people. As English political and military control of the island spread- through the Tudor conquests, the Plantations, the Cromwellian campaigns- English as a spoken language spread along with it. However, even as late as the early 19th Century, in many areas of Ireland, Irish was still the principal language spoken among the people; English was spoken by few, and then principally in dealings with outsiders.

For the majority of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, and well into the Nineteenth, the prevailing method of education in Ireland was through an unaffiliated collection of pay schools, commonly known as “hedge schools.” These schools were established in response to the Penal Laws which were in force in Ireland at that time. These laws prohibited, among other things, the education of the majority of Irish people. For many years, in an effort to provide banned education to the Irish people, clandestine schools were held, sometimes sporadically, in barns and haysheds, in fields, in roadside ditches, and hidden behind hedgerows (whence they take their name). Instruction was given in reading, writing, and mathematics, and sometimes in Latin, Greek, geography, history, and other subjects.

One of the central events that led to the largely English-speaking Ireland we know of today was the introduction of the National School system in Ireland in the 1830s. This new educational system was, in many respects, similar in intent to the present-day government educational system with which we are familiar: all education was free, it was available to all, and all children were required by law to attend. All instruction in these schools was in English. The introduction of the National School system heralded the end of the hedge schools (although some hedge schools lasted into the last decade of the century, and some new schools patterned on the old hedge school model can be found today). And as the English-speaking National Schools supplanted the Irish-speaking hedge schools, so too did English begin to supplant Irish as the spoken tongue.

Translations offers a glimpse of that sad aspect of Ireland’s tragic and terrible history. The loss of language is not merely a shift from one form of communication to another- language is endemic to a culture. To lose a language is to lose one’s sense of self, of place; and to destroy a language altogether is to destroy that culture.

But beyond simply being a historical record, Translations asks us questions about language. How can we communicate when spoken language is unavailable? Can a translation ever capture the real meaning of the original? Is it inherently corrupted by the translating language, or does corruption of meaning come from the translator? How can a culture survive if its language is suppressed? The characters in Translations struggle with these questions in their own ways. It is their story that you will see tonight.

Thank you for coming, and enjoy the show.

Photo Gallery

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Photos by Dean Evangelista.

Disclaimer: Rockville Little Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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is founder and Artistic Director of OutOftheBlackBox Theatre Company (O2B2) and General Manager of the Greenbelt Arts Center. Since 2006 Betsy has worked as a director, producer, designer and more. Betsy has also worked with Washington Revels, Arena Stage, the now-defunct Harlequin Dinner Theatre and with community theatre companies both in Maryland and in upstate New York. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Technical Theatre from SUNY New Paltz. Through Hawkeswood Productions, Betsy produces archival performance videos and YouTube highlight spots.

2 Responses »

  1. Dear Betsy,

    My lady and I saw the play on Friday, Feb. 4, 2011. We have season tickets, and have seen all of the plays and musicals of the RLT and the musical group this season.

    About the sound:
    I am under the impression that a big reason that the sound is a problem, is that they are using microphones suspended from the ceiling to pick up the sound of the actor’s voices. I was told that the FSF Theater owns the more modern way of sound pickup, which is a FM wireless microphone worn by each actor, but for some reason, there are people associated with the productions who refuse to use them. I hope that you can get to bottom of this, and get them to use FM wireless microphones. Additionally, in Evita, they had a live orchestra, which was wonderful! I thought that they were going to use recordings. However, the orchestra was loud (of course that’s they way live music is) and the sound control had the sound of the voices at a lower volume, so that we rarely could understand the words while the music was playing. They need a better sound board technician.

    About the productions:
    The ones we saw were outstanding. We could see that everyone on stage and everyone off stage were working their hearts out. Besides the audience, those people who do so much work to make it all happen, deserve to have a sound system equal to all of the effort and caring which goes into the productions.

    About Translations:
    Because of the sound issue, we were confused about some aspects of the play.

    When Lt. Yolland and Maire were observed kissing, I couldn’t see or understand who the observer was. Was that intentional?

    When Lt. Yolland appeared to be missing, I thought that he and Maire had run off together. Later, when Maire came on stage, I realized that Lt. Yolland had been murdered, and that Manus was probably the murderer, as it was obvious that he was in love with Maire. Was my confusion intended, or was it just me?

    Earlier in the play, it seemed that Manus was also in love with Sarah, but nothing came of that – except later in the play Sarah made the motions of rocking a baby in her arms. Was she pregnant with Manus’s child? If not, what did the character of Sarah mean in the play? It seemed to us that her character made no difference at all, except perhaps to confuse the audience about who Manus cared about.

    I do hope that you will answer my comments and question.

  2. *Potential Spoiler Warning*

    Some aspects of the play are revealed in the comments below. If you’d rather form your own opinions, please consider reading this review after watching the production.

    * Potential Spoiler Warning*

    Dear Alvin:

    Unfortunately there are aspects of the play which escaped me as well, until I did some research online regarding the plot. My companion has seen the play before and knew many of these aspects, which she shared, but sadly because of the sound issues, there were places where I was just as lost as you, thanks to acoustic issues.

    The playwright leaves Lt. Yolland’s disappearance and Manus’ relationships with both Sarah and Maire intentionally ambiguous. I believe Sarah’s presence is intended to illustrate some of the issues the Irish population faced with the loss of Hedge schools (she was being drawn out of her shell only to lose the connection to her teacher by his abrupt departure) as well as another problem with communication (her character is generally non-verbal).

    At least, that’s what I perceived to be the case while watching the production.

    Also unfortunately, body microphones are often quite finicky and can sometimes cause more problems than they cure. Depending on them to reach all ears is a tricky proposition at best. And finally, if I understand the problem correctly, because of the shape of the audience seating area, sound is absorbed by portions of the middle-range rows, leading to a “dead zone” where the sound simply doesn’t reach properly.

    I hope this helps clarify the situation. This is the first performance I have seen by RLT and the first in this space, so I have no basis for comparison as to whether they did better or worse than other productions held there. I hope to review other productions at the theatre, so I can have a better understanding of the challenges inherent in the space.

    Thank you so much for your comments!