Monday, 30 May 2011


Languages are dying all over the world. The internet might allow access to more information, sometimes choking the world with a surfeit of knowledge that was once the preserve of experts, or bringing half-baked theories of criticism or conspiracy into the public domain, but it remains part of the same cultural imperialism that once conquered the world with guns, school books and religious texts. English, especially in its American incarnation, is becoming a lingua franca. Minority languages like Gaelic are being pummelled.
Most of Somersaults follows one man’s loss of language: his father dies and he grasps at fleeting memories of the language he once spoke. The mysterious shedding of his wealth, his marriage, his mental health is a blunt metaphor for the loss of his childhood language. His degeneration is appropriately disorientating, as are the scenes in Gaelic for English speakers.

The National Theatre of Scotland is probably not retreating into the same Celtic Twilight. Five years in, the "company without a theatre", has had one international hit, Blackwatch, many experiments into Performance Format - including the memorable Allotment, when they let an early version of my Mr Criticulous hog the space - and a steady output to mixed critical and audience response. They've taken up with Gary McNair, employed Amanda Monfrooe, enticed big names back to Scotland and avoiding turning into a nightmare of dated social realism nonsense that has been the dream of too many commentators.

For some reason, they have taken this anniversary year to reignite the debate about the role of "Scottish Theatre". A selection of favourite oldies, including The Steamie, have been given rehearsed readings, Men Should Weep gets an NTS makeover - possibly on the back of the other NT's revival, and Somersaults is an explicit attempt to have a Scottish New Play that is about Scottish Culture. David Greig even gets a bit of Gaelic into his Dunsinane.

Personally, I couldn't care less about this debate. I am a Wessex Regionalist and have always been content to live in a multi-cultural society: notions of nationhood are absurd to me, a hangover from the ninetenth century's drunken orgy of state building and definition. I admire Somersaults for engaging with a minority language, because I long for the preservation of anything that isn't bland Western Monoculture; I wouldn't mind the Old Gold Season if the plays are good enough. Aestehetically, I am glad to see the NTS go on a chase for something so difficult to define. Art is always a better bet than politicians when it comes to thinking about Big Questions, mainly because artists are so tentative. Somersaults is a fine example of this, making a case for Gaelic on the grounds of beauty not duty. it opens up the discussion...
...Suddenly, the show turns into a debate. The actors drop their characters to discuss the worth, and decay, of Gaelic. While it is encouraging to see work that is so willing to leap off the stage into argument, this is a clumsy transition, and doesn’t engage the audience. Instead, it is a series of staged meditations on a cultural loss. At least there is no rousing conclusion. A more authentic finale would have taken that discussion into the bar, not stage it as a series of pointed considerations.
The lack of confidence in the play’s ability to provoke discussion is saddening: the elegiac journey of the hero into a linguistic twilight makes a strong case for the importance of language in human identity. By ending on a meandering reflection, the passion of the characters is lost. Somersaults is sensitively scripted, executed elegantly and a poetic appeal for preserving any lost tradition.
Yet maybe that mirrors Gaelic’s own insecurity. Having been beaten out of pupils until the 1960s, and lacking any foothold in the development of Scots, Gaelic has been protected by the educational establishment – it is about as popular as Latin on the syllabus, despite investment in Gaelic schools – and given a special place within the heritage industry. It is a ghostly presence within Scottish culture, undeniably a link to the past but lacking a truly national pull. It was never the language of the lowlands.
The subtle frailty of the characters and story is a mature response to Gaelic’s status: it emphasises the beauty of the language, its strong connection to place and nature. Without descending into sentimentality, Iain Finlay Macleod evokes a delicate beauty and wistful poignancy. The contrast with the modern rush and bleep of the exile’s life makes clear why Gaelic deserves to be protected, to have its own television channel. Gaelic represents a counter-cultural impulse towards a meaning beyond consumerism.

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