It’s no coincidence that Matt Torney is directing Translations, the iconic Brian Friel play now on view at Studio Theatre. “It’s a play I’ve wanted to do ever since I first saw it in Belfast, when I was 15,” Torney said. “It was a formative experience, my first exposure to this kind of theatre.”
The chance to direct the play, which David Muse, Studio’s artistic director, regards as a masterwork of world literature, is one of the things that brought Torney to Washington. He had previously served as head of programming for Origin Theatre, a nonprofit company known as the gateway to the U.S. for European artists.
But before he could tackle Translations, Torney, who is now in his third season as associate artistic director at Studio Theatre, had a lot of other directorial assignments to complete, including The Hard Problem and Jumpers for Goalposts. Both scored Helen Hayes Award nominations.
Translations is set in rural County Donegal, in the North of Ireland, in 1833, where the locals speak Gaelic among themselves and study Greek and Latin in illegal schools. They are Catholic, while the rulers, living in far-off England, are Protestant.
The play begins with the arrival of a couple of British army engineers, who are assigned to draw new maps and translate local place names into “proper” English. The question is whether or not to resist. “Friel understood that ambiguity is the norm,” Torney explained. “In Translations, there are some people who want to be seen as part of the ruling class. They want to embrace the new language and customs.”
Yet language—in this case, the forced replacement of Gaelic—can become a weapon. “It’s a way to erode a civilization,” he added, pointing out that the play resonates with us today because the subject of colonial occupation is still with us.
For example, American patriots, at exactly the same time, were deliberately wiping out Native American culture, and doing so with complete confidence that it was the “right” thing to do. “When you have two different cultures and one is trying to conquer the other, you have different views about the past and future,” he said. “The two sides cannot find common ground.”
In fact, it was the search for common ground that led Friel to write the play in 1980. This was during the 30-year period of unrest known as the Troubles and Belfast was under siege. Catholics and Protestants were virtually at war. Friel joined forces with Stephen Rea, the actor, and they deliberately set out to create the kind of theatre, in the heart of Belfast, that might transform the combatants while entertaining them.
Translations, which is set 150 years before the Troubles, was intended as a parable of the conflict, one in which drama might help people to come together despite change. And it worked. Protestants and Catholics laughed at the same jokes.
Friel, who is best known in the U.S. for Dancing at Lughnasa, possessed a vast command of language. His plays, according to Torney, combine the emotional power of Anton Chekhov and the wit of Tom Stoppard.
“No question, Brian Friel is my hero,” he said, describing his time working as a 27-year-old assistant to David Leveaux, the famous international director at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Leveaux was directing Friel’s adaptation of Three Sisters and Torney’s job was conveying the director’s daily notes to the playwright.
“Friel hated those notes. One day he said to me, “I don’t like directors, but I do like you. Which means that I won’t like you when you become a director.”
Sadly, that opportunity never arose. Friel died three years ago, at the age of 86. “He was very erudite, yet pragmatic,” Torney recalled. “He loved Gaelic, but he taught English. Before that, he tried the priesthood. He wrote short stories for the New Yorker and then turned to drama.”
While there have been many productions of Translations since it was written, this one focuses, more than others, on language, and the complex dance in which words and meaning often merge. Click here to read DCMTA’s review.
After three years in Washington, Torney is still amazed at how good theater is here. “I love the DC stage,” he said. “New York may get top billing, but DC is a friendlier place to work. I felt so welcome when I arrived. And the audiences are great!”
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission