WHAT value is there in speaking Gaelic? For entrepreneur James, there is none. He can measure the money he made from the video games industry, he can calculate the price of his up-market London home and he can ask his financial advisor for a figure for his collection of abstract art. Perhaps he couldn’t reduce his wife Alison to pounds, shillings and pence, but there’s a feeling even she is a trophy he has been able to buy thanks to his considerable fortune.
But for all his riches, James isn’t really the materialistic sort. He enjoys the good life, likes a drink and a bit of company and feels at home in a capital city, but he is a man who gave up work, having calculated he had more than he could ever spend and desiring no more. It is this quality that distinguishes him from other self-made men and what makes him especially vulnerable when he hears his father has been diagnosed with cancer back on the Isle of Lewis.
For James was originally known as Seumas, his first tongue being Gaelic and, although there is no call for the language in his metropolitan life, it is a deeper part of him than he realises. The impending death of his father is a symbolic reminder of the impending death of Gaelic, one further break with the life, culture and words of the past. And so, although he can put no value on his mother tongue, although he has no practical use for it and can think of it only in terms of the poetic, the social and the romantic, he feels its importance more profoundly than any of his worldly goods.
So, in Iain Finlay Macleod’s short and sweet drama for the National Theatre of Scotland, it is of great import to him when he realises he is forgetting certain Gaelic words. He can perform a head-over-heals on Kai Fischer’s sandpit of a set, but he can’t find the way to say “somersault”. He has similar gaps in naming the parts of a loom and recalling other vocabulary he used only as a child. This troubles him more than the loss of his possessions when bankruptcy strikes because it threatens the very definition of himself.
By the end of Vicky Featherstone’s dream-like production, James is fading from view like the very language he represents. The drama makes way for a discussion in which the actors acknowledge the rational arguments against a minority language and defend the emotional tug that binds them to it. Beautifully performed and poetically written, Somersaults is as much elegy as polemic and is all the more touching for it.
© Mark Fisher 2011
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