When a language dies it is not just a way of speaking that disappears. Literature, storytelling — particularly the kind that depends on aural tradition — songs, conversations, jokes, all eventually follow the spoken word into extinction.
As Iain Finlay Macleod’s new play illustrates, the process of linguistic decay involves countless tiny moments of loss — when a word passed down by one generation is nudged out of the memory of the next, often by the equivalent word in English, the Japanese knotweed of language.
In the case of my maternal grandmother, Ladino was spoken by her ancestors since they were expelled from Spain in 1492. After she settled in London, only a few phrases were passed down to her children. Only a few words have reached me. None will reach my children.
In the case of James (David Carlyle), the hero of Macleod’s compact offering, the language in question is Gaelic and the lost word is, rather randomly, the Gaelic version of “somersault”. To remember it, James, an entrepreneur who has fallen on hard times, will have to visit his dying father on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland where he was raised.
It is not just the language and his father that are leaving James. The expensive lifestyle, built from the proceeds of selling advertising space on computer games, has been replaced by bankruptcy. A liquidator is going through every asset, and his wife has left him for a university friend. It is a natural moment for James to take stock and the inventory is showing that he has nothing left, not even the language he was raised with.
Macleod is a playwright who has also written novels in his native Gaelic. And there are scenes here between father (Tom Marshall) and son that are spoken entirely in the Celtic language. To the non-speaker the passages offer a chance to appreciate its musicality and rhythms, although less open-minded members of the audience may focus on not being able to understand a bloody word. These moments are interesting the first time but teeter on tedium by the third.
Still, Macloed and director Russell Bolam cleverly structure the play’s 75 uninterrupted minutes with a lot of invention, colliding the various elements of James’s life in seemingly randomly ordered scenes. And Barrett (Richard Teverson), the sinister, sharp-suited liquidator whose job it is to sell everything that James once owned, becomes increasingly influential as a sort of Mephistophelian figure. It is as if James’s materialistic life was a Faustian pact he is now having to make good on.
It all serves as a powerful metaphor for the unquantifiable value of language, as opposed to money and possessions. And the acting is charismatic. Carlyle’s James is a man of coiled restlessness, while Simon Harrison plays James’s friend and fellow Cambridge graduate with smarmy charm.
But the invention with which James’s various crises are depicted give way to something all too literal. Characters step out of plot and deliver mini-lectures on relevant themes and lessons. It is a pretty tired vehicle that in any case works best in verbatim plays where the words have been previously spoken by real people. But here it appears Macloed has lost faith in his ability to communicate everything he wants to say, which is ironic for a play about language. (www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk)