Sunday, November 26, 2023


Last night, I saw Irish Repertory Theatre's production of Translations, Brian Friel's disturbingly timely portrait of imperialists and resistance fighters competing to sink to new lows of inhumanity.

Today, Dublin is still dealing with the fallout of riots that followed a recent knife attack. Violence has begotten more violence, just as it does in the play. Translations begins with arguments over words, a topic that remains fraught today as well. While much rhetoric is aimed at the "violence" of language, ultimately words are just words, and as characters in the play make clear, the names of things are continually evolving anyway.

Debates over place names turn violent in Friel's play after British Lieutenant Yolland, played by Raffi Barsoumian, begins to fall in love with a curly-haired Irish lass named Maire, portrayed by Mary Wiseman. He speaks virtually no Irish, and she speaks virtually no English, but they bond while dancing, and their scene together just before the intermission is heartwarming and funny, even if the audience can see the society around them will never allow their budding romance to bloom.

Barsoumian plays the awkward and shy Yolland with a sweetness and good nature, as well as with a conscience that leads him to examine his own role in Britain's colonial project in Ireland. When the lieutenant disappears, it seems that resistance fighters couldn't have found a more innocent victim. The British army responds predictably, with an over-reaction that is likely to accomplish nothing but create more resistance fighters.

Though this production was planned months ago, parallels with the Hamas-Israel conflict seem inevitable. In Ireland, the troubles depicted in the play in 1833 had deep roots, going back to the 1798 uprising referenced by Friel, and much more before that. The violence continued into the 1980s when the play premiered, and did not substantially end until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

With the temporary cease fire in the Middle East leading to at least a little progress, we have to hope that other parts of the world don't spiral down into the chaos and violence Ireland suffered for so long.