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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Somersaults
Finborough Theatre  January 2013

Iain Finlay Macleod had a strong idea – two of them, actually – for a play, but he hasn't succeeded in squeezing them both into the same play or in shaping either of them into dramatic form. 

So, despite strong efforts by director Russell Bolam and an occasionally puzzled-looking cast, Somersaults is more a hint of what might have been than a satisfying accomplishment. 

Macleod's main character, James, is a well-off Londoner originally from the Scottish isles. Suddenly, and without any explanation or preparation (for us or him) he goes bankrupt. 

As a liquidator repossesses his possessions, his wife leaves him and an old friend betrays him, James deflects all his pain (a nice and psychologically believable touch, this) into concern for his dying father back in Scotland and regret that he's forgetting the Gaelic he spoke as a child. 

The dying out of a language as a metaphor for a man's loss of all the accomplishments by which he defined himself – or, conversely, a man's loss of everything as a metaphor for the dying of an ancient language and culture – are both potential cores for a strong drama, though probably not the same one, and for the longest time it is not clear which play Macleod is writing. 

About midway through there's a brief but very evocative scene between James and the not-unfriendly liquidator in which the latter suggests that losing everything may give James the freedom and clarity to discover who he really is. And for a while the play seems to be about an existential debate – is a man's identity to be found in connecting to his roots or in rejecting everything in his past as encumbrances to self-knowledge? 

But then Macleod drops that subject entirely and indeed gives up on the plot entirely, stopping the play dead to have the actors step out of character and lecture the audience directly on the evils of allowing a language like Gaelic to die. 

Aside from the surprise of discovering that the play is actually all about something we could be excused for thinking was just a secondary metaphor, that last section amounts to an admission of failure – evidently unable to say what he wanted through drama the playwright becomes an essayist. (The lecture section takes up more than a quarter of the published text, though it has been trimmed somewhat in performance.)

I personally found the aborted play about James more involving than the undramatised one about Gaelic, but even those more interested in linguistic sociology are likely to be disappointed at just being talked at.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Somersaults - Finborough Theatre 2013  

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