Richly portraying Gaelic culture and staying authentic to Irish tradition, the Barnard theater department adaptation of “Translations” simultaneously devotes itself to the past and the present. With references to Virgil and Homer, alongside a set that is brought to life through technology, this adaptation fuses the modern and traditional.
“Translations” by Brian Friel, directed by Barnard Co-Artistic Director Sharon Fogarty and produced by the Barnard’s theatre department, is being performed from Dec. 7 to Dec. 9 at Barnard’s Minor Latham Playhouse; Spectator viewed a dress rehearsal for the performance. Set in the early 19th century, the play harkens back to the English invasion of Ireland. When English cartographers arrived in the small Gaelic parish, modernity and technology came to a literal frontier of tradition.
While the amalgamation of modern and traditional theater was impressive, the acting felt insincere and disappointed at points.
But Brendan Walsh, GS ’18, as Eoghan, outshone the rest of the cast, delivering a performance fraught with both ambiguity and charisma. Sarah (Genevieve Henderson, BC ’19), a character that should have been central to the narrative, failed to be relatable. Although the mute Sarah was meant to evoke sympathy, Henderson’s grunts came off as monotone and at times irritating.
Despite the actors’ occasional shortcomings, the projected landscape and the blurring of characters’ accents retained traditional Gaelic culture and brought a progressive and modern feel to the play.
The opening scene blends traditional Gaelic song—sung by Máire (Chloé Worthington, BC ’18)—with a bewitching representation of the landscape. The actors, cloaked in black hoods, lie prostrate on the stage, creating a silhouette of the hilly Irish countryside with their bodies. In addition, a projector generated changing colors onto a window drawn with chalk—an example of new technology confronting the old style of education, symbolized by chalk.
“You have to keep renewing these images,” Fogarty told Spectator, “but the static, which is loss of signal and loss of connection, interjects, and so we’re going to a place, especially with technology, that means we’re losing our connection to this very rich past.”
Connection and communication between the English and Gaelic worlds within Friel’s script are the driving forces behind the narrative. Each character in the adaptation has a different way of speaking—or not, in Sarah’s case.
Fogarty said that rather than work on a standardized Irish accent, actors each formed their own dialect. These multiple accents and voices color the narrative, as individuals each offer new translations to Friel’s play.
Alongside human voices, Gaelic instruments served as backing to the performance. Within Irish music, the Uilleann pipes are quintessential. What might be labeled as the Irish equivalent of the bagpipes, this Gaelic instrument was the inspiration for the monotone backing track to the Irish landscape. This instrument, for Fogarty, links the traditional state of Ireland to her modernist adaptation and provides a constancy to the production. The drone, recorded by the actors themselves, have a haunting effect—inspiring a bellicose mood and harkening back to the violent nature of the Irish War of Independence.
Although the war is only hinted at in this adaptation of “Translations,” the tensions inherent to revolutionizing tradition are central to the piece.
“We do have to fight for what we want,” Fogarty said, “and we have to fight for each other and fight to keep the traditions that we want. To keep them rich and alive as best we can while this other stuff is degrading it, breaking it away—that was really an important idea in this play.”