Scots Cambridge graduate, James, has it all – or what passes for "all" in our materialistic culture. Having made a packet from computer games, he's the self-made metropolitan man incarnate, with a swanky Hampstead flat, a beautiful trophy wife and an art collection so impersonal that even the couches are a copy of those in Tate Modern. But then he has a little premonitory accident.
While serving drinks to a recently rediscovered university friend, he trips on a rug and goes arse over tip. What this upset principally makes him realise that he cannot remember the word for “somersault” in Scots Gaelic, the language he spoke as a child. As the financial crash robs him of his wealth, James returns to Lewis, where his father Sandy, his last link to the past and to his linguistic roots, is dying of cancer. When you are reduced to nothing, you always have your mother tongue to fall back on – don't you?
First presented by the National Theatre of Scotland and now receiving its English premiere in a well-acted but distractingly over-fussy production by Russell Bolam, Iain Finlay Macleod's talented, calculatedly fractured seventy-minute drama is informed by a bracing scepticism as it meditates on the role that language plays in our sense of identity.
David Carlyle's twinkly, charming James is repeatedly confronted by a posh, eerie bailiff-figure (Richard Teverson) who is making a clinical inventory of all his assets at the same time as James is struggling to remember the basic words for the sentimental heirlooms (his father's weaving tools) that, to the liquidator, are valueless.
But there's a creepy moment when the bailiff suddenly betrays his knowledge of a line from a Gaelic song – almost as if this apparent antagonist is James's alter ego and precursor in the stripping away of everything, even the taste on the tongue of one's childhood. And while the unsubtitled conversations in Gaelic with his father (rather stiffly acted here) are designed to communicate the intimacy that can't be reproduced in any other way, Tom Marshall's gentle, fading Sandy is refreshingly equivocal about the seeming rootedness that belatedly means so much to his son.
He had intended to live in New Zealand until called back because of his own father's final illness. The culminating debate about minority languages, addressed straight to the audience, suggests that these issues should have been woven better into the fabric of the drama. But this is a play that will continue to nag at one's mind like a word that is on the point of remembering.
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