Saturday, February 25, 2012

Review: (Ottawa) Translations

Little Theatre/Big Play
OLT does it again
by Jim Murchison

This week I went to see Ottawa Little Theatre’s production of Translations. It is a very ambitious project that explores issues of language and assimilation in 19th century Ireland. Writer Brian Friel has always insisted that Translations is a play about language and only language. Although the play is written in English, the majority of the characters speak predominantly in Irish (Gaelic). Through theatrical convention we are afforded the opportunity to hear them in English. 
Robin Riddihough’s set is a slice of Irish countryside. Large red gates lead into a converted barn where lanterns hang near the steps and lobster traps lean against fieldstone walls. There are tables and chairs there as well, although one might just as well choose to sit on the steps. In every little shelf and storage area there are books. This charming cozy little venue is used as a rustic adult schoolhouse where Gaelic, Greek and Latin are studied along with math and other subjects.

The English are bold and bright seeking to stand out and overpower their environment. The Irish are at one with their land and married to the earth.
Costumes are particularly important in a piece such as this. Peggy Laverty has designed clothes that convey the period and support the feeling of earthy country charm of the Irish residents. The bright red coats of the English forces stand out in this countryside. The wardrobe is as much an indicator of the division between the two people as the language. The English are bold and bright seeking to stand out and overpower their environment. The Irish are at one with their land and married to the earth. 
As the play opens a young man named Manus is coaching words out of a young Irish girl named Sarah. Sarah, played by Katie Buller is pushing each word out as if she was physically giving birth to it. When she is finally able to say, “My name is Sarah” Manus beams like a proud new daddy. Conrad McCallum plays Manus with a boyish charm and a fervent idealism that shows his love and dedication to language and his home.
Threatening to tear this rural bliss apart is Manus’ brother Owen, played with the charm and swagger of a pitchman by Lawrence Aronovitch. He works as a translator for the English troops. Owen sees himself as a facilitator to progress. Manus sees Owen as a sell out to imperialism. There is truth in both points of view. With each step we take forward we also lose something of our purity and innocence.
Of course the one language that unites us all is love. Perhaps the best scene in the play is where the young English Lieutenant George Yolland, played by Kirk Morrison, woos Maire played by Emily Walsh. George has fallen in love with both Ireland and Maire despite the fact that Maire is being courted by Manus. She doesn't speak the same language as George, but she is drawn to him. The scene is played hilariously in a way that is quite endearing. The two are frustrated and excited simultaneously and somehow are able to communicate despite the fact that they don’t grasp the words. They comprehend by feeling each other's hearts and seeing each other's eyes. 

Translations is relevant to Canadians for many reasons.
Director Klaas van Weringh has elected to do the play without Irish accents and it is a good choice. He has given the characters Irish spirit and Irish pride and the balanced cast execute his direction well. Geoffrey Wale as Captain Lancey plays his British stiffness very well. He has orders to perform and he executes them. He is as stiff as his upper lip and as unbending as his starched collar. Doalty is played believably by Aidan Dewhurst with a robust bravado. He fits in perfectly as a practical joker who delights in his own buffoonery. Bridget is played with a wholesome bawdiness by Amaru Manel Anderson in a role that hits the right notes. The patriarch and scholar of the play is Hugh played very skillfully by Dan Baran. He is equally passionate for language and the bottle.
There is a lot more I could say about the play, but I think it is best to be seen. Translations is relevant to Canadians for many reasons. There are some obvious cultural comparisons and issues with language. There is a line in the play, "Old language is a barrier to modern progress."  It made me consider how progress and particularly technology is changing us. Sometimes progress can make us forget our way home and we lose sight of simpler pleasures. As technology speeds up we need to learn to slow down and have some patience. Translations takes us back to a time when actual conversation was our most important means of communication. I actually enjoyed Translations more when I got home and thought about it. The play has an ambiguous ending that doesn't seek to tell us everything, but rather to examine our own thoughts and reflect on them. 
This is an important play and while the production isn't perfect, it is the kind of thought-provoking important play that we are privileged to see presented by OLT. They continue to take on very challenging productions and do a commendable job. That is why they have a dedicated following in the community. They truly are the Ottawa Community Theatre.

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