True tales of Irish stereotypes: Belfast-born Matt Torney tells of an Irish-loving American who wanted to fight because Torney was drinking the wrong whiskey.
“That’s traitor’s whiskey,” the Yank said, for there are hardcore types who insist on sorting brands into Protestant or Catholic camps. To cool things down, Torney replied, “No true Irishman lets politics come between him and his whiskey.”
A contested sense of identity is key to “Translations,” the Brian Friel drama that Torney is now directing at Studio Theatre. Friel wrote the play in 1980, during the heart of the 30-year unrest known as the Troubles; it was the first production from the politically attuned Field Day Theatre Company, which Friel started with actor Stephen Rea. He set the drama in 1830 as the British remapped Ireland and Anglicized place names. Even now, Northern Ireland is culturally unsettled about the largely eroded Irish language.
Torney’s father had a saying meant to tamp down factional fever: You can’t eat flags. But as a college student in Dublin whose accent marked him as Northern Irish, Torney was once pressed in a pub to identify himself as a Catholic or a Protestant.
“They did not want to accept me as a kind of, like, middle-class, moderate, inclusive person who wanted to be part of modern Ireland, with a European identity, an international identity,” Torney says. “Someone who wanted to love Northern Ireland from afar, rather than fight on the details.”
That’s partly what drew him to Friel’s play, along with the mixed-up sense of borders and allegiances that came with the Brexit vote in 2016 and the 2015 death of the playwright (whose plays include “Faith Healer” and “Dancing at Lughnasa”). “I think all the Northern Irish directors kind of have ‘Translations’ on their bucket list,” says Torney, who has been Studio’s associate artistic director since 2015. “You want to get in there, because there’s something sticky about it.”
The play features a mash of language — English, Gaelic, Latin, Greek — yet it’s easy to follow. Characters mainly speak English even when it’s clear to audiences that they can’t understand one another. “It’s a masterpiece of miscommunication,” Torney says.
Friel works in an overtone of the 1980s strife when a character goes missing; Torney notes that “the disappeared” were not uncommon at the time. Yet the strength of the play, he suggests, is its avoidance of political melodrama.
“It’s not saying, ‘Aren’t the English terrible for doing this to Ireland?’ ” he explains. “It’s saying, ‘What happens when you translate names? What happens to the country’s sense of itself?’ If you’re not given a choice to choose your own identity, it doesn’t go well.”
Torney describes his relationship with Irish drama as complicated, doubly so when he encounters American versions of stage Irishness — “peasants and drink and songs and the warm hearth.” Torney, whose post-college stint as an art director included gopher work on Annie Leibovitz photo shoots, has taste that runs toward the rough-edge visions of Enda Walsh and Martin McDonagh.
“That’s a full-frontal assault on a certain kind of Irishness,” he says of McDonagh’s black comedies, not including McDonagh’s thoroughly characteristic “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (which Torney hasn’t seen yet). “I think they also travel very well,” he adds, “because that Ireland is like a kind of abstract, film-noir-type Ireland.”
Working against sentiment is something Torney will guard against with the frequently staged “Translations.”
“I’ve seen a couple of productions that present the Irish as a sylvan pastoral paradise, people who want nothing more than to be left free among the hills,” he says.
“That’s boring, and I think it’s not a close reading of the play, because the characters do not agree what Irishness is. Some are very addicted to the past. Some want to change. That’s the perspective I’m bringing — that everybody has an individual sense of Ireland, an individual sense of England. And what’s interesting is the Venn diagram of what aligns.”
Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. studiotheatre.org.
Dates: Through April 22 .