Finborough Theatre’s Somersaults opens this week with the notable absence of the fantastic wine bar nestled below the space. Making the short hop to the nearby newsagents for a drink is a minor annoyance however, especially with the prospect of a new play dealing with the politics of dwindling languages.
I learned Irish from a very young age and through lack of use I have lost most practical knowledge of it and have often lamented this loss. Iain Finlay Macleod’s text, an attempt at a fresh look at the viability of Scottish Gaelic appeals therefore, especially as the subject has been so sensitively and brilliantly dealt with by the likes of Brian Friel in his Translations. Macleod is no Friel and there are issues with how language is presented but high quality acting and sincerity from the cast make this a decent performance and an accomplished start to the new year for director Russell Bolam and the Finborough.
As James loses his fortune (gained from pioneering advertisements in video games, the ultimate feckless get-rich-quick-scheme) he increasingly grasps for his Gaelic roots, hunting for words that he has forgotten and querying his dying father about the translation of “somersaults” and other phrases.
The portrait of a young man losing everything and frantically scrabbling for language as a last resort is well played by David Carlyle who absolutely owns the piece with moments of tenderness and genuine comedy. That said, James is a vacuous wastrel and hard to care for. The link between the life of James and the life of his mother tongue is purposely ambiguous but never coalesces into anything truly powerful or moving and herein lies the problem. In the end, is this just a simple parable about the fall of a person and the fall of a language?
The issue of identity wrought through a language is a more interesting topic and certainly is worked on in the play, with the father-son relationship played out through the politics of translation. Unfortunately, author McLeod strays too often from this poignancy and ends up shoehorning the message into the final act of the play. Here the actors address the audience, directly detailing their relationship with Gaelic. This is somewhat grating as the audience is made to feel guilty about the death of a language as if they were uppity children at the back of a French class.
With some pruning – and the abandonment of its final lecture – this play could flourish as an important debate on the vitality of language diversity versus London cultural homogeneity.