When we think of conquered nations, we often think of war and violence. But there is an even more insidious way to conquer a people: take aim at their culture. And to be extra effective? Erase the very words they use.
Such is the plight of the Irish characters in The Woodford Theater’s latest production, “Translations,” written by Brian Friel in 1980.
Set in the fictional town of Baile Beag in 1833 Donegal, the play focuses on the town’s inhabitants as they grapple with the arrival of English soldiers, who are creating a map of Ireland with new English versions of place names. Although the Irish parliament was abolished in 1801, the residents of Baile Beag continue to speak and live according to rural Gaelic customs. But the town’s identity — not to mention that of its inhabitants — is forever altered by the Anglicization of their language and culture.
Central to the show’s premise is the failure of translating not just words but ideas and meaning.
Most of the Irish inhabitants don’t speak English, and none of the English speak Irish, so the simple act of communication is fraught with frustration and lost meanings, a gap of understanding that hinders both the Irish and the English, underscoring the play’s major theme of the cultural importance of language.
It’s all about that identity being taken away. Our language is our identity. Our accent is our identity, too. You travel around the United States and you can figure out where a person is from based on their accent. It’s part of who we are.
Patti Heying, dialect coach
Speaking of language, audiences can expect to hear a particular northwestern rural Irish accent, which the cast spent several weeks practicing, with the help of dialect coach Patty Heying, before rehearsal began.
“They had to go through their scripts and mark where those substitutions happen,” Heying says. “I sent them sound samples as well, and (I) think they’ve really done a marvelous job.”
Heying says mastering the play’s language hasn’t been easy.
“This dialect is really, really challenging. It’s just so specific to that area,” she says, because the regional accent is not unlike regional accents in the United States that hint at where someone is from.
“The sound of the play is integral to theme of the play,” she says. “It’s all about that identity being taken away. Our language is our identity. Our accent is our identity, too. You travel around the United States, and you can figure out where a person is from based on their accent. It’s part of who we are.”
But who the villagers of Baile Beag are is changing.
Take young Maire, for instance, played by Rachel Rogers. Maire embraces the change. She wants to learn to speak English so she can go to America.
Director Joe Ferrell says Maire’s acceptance of English is an example of how the villagers each approach the quandary of the English language encroachment in a complicated spectrum of responses, ranging from embrace and acceptance to determined resistance.
“Many of the characters, however, are pretty much against this whole idea, and it is destroying some of the fabric of the culture,” Ferrell says. “Even taking small steps against it can in fact become very difficult for the individual character.
“You end up seeing at one end, the violence; the other end, acceptance and somewhere in the middle, a recognition that we are going to have to begin to do some of the things the British are wanting us to do, are subjugating us to do, or we are simply going to fail,” Ferrell says. Then what begins to happen “ is so much of that wonderful Irish heritage is slowly eroded.”
It’s a little bit like going to see Shakespeare.
Even though the Irish language is central to the show’s theme, audiences won’t be hearing a lot of it except for pronunciations of Gaelic place names.
Friel wrote the play in English, with dialect marking the distinction between the two languages and audiences inferring from the actors’ delivery when characters can’t understand each other — often communicated in puzzled looks or a character’s simple statement the he or she doesn’t know what another character is saying.
Heying says the dialect takes some getting used to, and the cast has worked hard to convey not only accuracy but as much clarity as possible for audiences.
“It’s a little bit like going to see Shakespeare,” Heying says. It might take a few minutes for the audience to tune into the musicality of the language.
“We’ve tried really hard to make sure the actors are still understandable,” Heying says. “My advice to the audience is don’t panic. The actors try to take their time during the play’s opening so that our ears get accustomed to it.”
“The language is so different, it takes a little while to get used to it,” she says. “If you relax and just kind of let it flow over you, you will understand.”
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
If you go
What: The Woodford Theatre’s production of Brian Friel’s play.
When: 8 p.m. March 24, 25, 31, April 1, 7, 8; 2 p.m. March 26, April 2, 9
Where: Falling Springs Arts and Recreation Center, 275 Beasley Drive, Versailles