Somersaults – A National Theatre of Scotland Platform Performance

National Theatre of Scotland-Somersaults. Picture credit Drew Farrell

Review by Susannah Radford

Somersaults, by Iain Finlay MacLeod, is a lovely meditation on the power of language, its link to identity and the pain associated with trying to keep a dying language alive.  Identity is eroded as one’s mother tongue is forgotten. It’s a cause for concern; in the last census Gaelic speakers made up just under 2% of the Scottish population.

As James’ life collapses he also has to face up to his father’s impending death, his last remaining link to the Gaelic language; his mother tongue.Somersaults forms part of the National Theatre of Scotland’s (NTS) Reveal season. A season designed to show all points of the creative process, Somersaults is a platform performance. This means it is a small-scale production that has only been rehearsed for a couple of weeks.

You wouldn’t know that.  It picks up pace as James tries to remember the Gaelic for “somersaults.” Language becomes a life buoy as he finds himself drowning in a sea of debt.  His character is reminiscent of Irina in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters who struggles to remember words in Italian; it’s the language or the words that connect both to an identity that’s being lost.

MacLeod excels with the language and there are many humorous moments; the giant halibut leaps out as a particularly vivid image, as does the phrase “look on the bright side” where words prove an empty comfort.

The Gaelic spoken in the play works well.  During these passages interest is held for the non-Gaelic speaker as it is interspersed with sparse English; it’s an engaging language to listen to. It is a source of grief for these characters that the language is hardly spoken and so unfavourably looked upon.

In his play notes MacLeod asks whether we are different people when we speak different languages. James seems gentler and more connected to a living past when he speaks Gaelic; speaking English he’s a bit more individualistic.

Somersaults changes tack at the end. I have no problem with breaking the fourth wall but the play moves from dialogue to monologue and while speaking up for a cause is valuable it may be more effective is if these passionate concerns were dramatised.

Under NTS’s Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone direction Somersaults is a tight production with a great ensemble cast.  It’s already very entertaining; with more development it’s going to be a cracker.

Somersaults runs until Saturday 19 March 11, 2011 at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh