One thread of the Finborough Theatre’s enterprising programming is to stage plays that highlight the languages other than English in the UK. Coming up in February is a play staged in Welsh (Saer Doliau), with English surtitles, and here, in Somersaults, the focus is on Scottish Gaelic. It’s a revival of a playful, poignant piece by Iain Finlay Macleod, first staged by the National Theatre of Scotland, that considers identity and the part language plays in defining who we are.
James, a successful young entrepreneur when we meet him, has left his childhood life and language long behind him: even the name his father gave him – Seumas – has morphed into its English version. He lives in London, hundreds of miles away from his native Isle of Lewis off the west coast of Scotland. But when his business and then his domestic life begin to crumble, he starts to panic about who he is. It strikes him one day that he can no longer recall the Gaelic word for “somersault” and realises that his only link with the language he spoke as a child is his dying father.
So the author explores the significance of the slow death of a language – not just as a form of communication, but as a repository of a whole way of life and of its speakers’ history and culture. But he also considers the nature of self, asking where our identity resides – in our job, our relationships, our lifestyle or our language? The play slips out of the confines of realism to include a liquidator (Richard Teverson): a strange, sinister character intent on removing not only James’s furniture, but his memories as well.
These are deep themes and the play is thoughtful, touching and funny. It struggles structurally, however: the scenes with the liquidator don’t quite come off, the set-up feels too schematic – James’s life as a wealthy Cambridge graduate living in Hampstead is skimpily outlined and rather clichéd – and the character of James’s wife is underwritten. Russell Bolam’s spry, witty production can’t quite overcome these flaws and feels awkward in places. But the scenes between James and his father are immensely moving, beautifully handled here – in a mix of English and Gaelic – by Tom Marshall as the father and David Carlyle as James. Meanwhile Max Pappenheim provides a subtle soundtrack that switches location in a trice. A slightly patchy evening, but a moving and important subject.