ANGUS MCPHEE - Weaver of Grass

ANGUS MCPHEE or MACPHEE was a crofter from Uist who spent almost 50 years in a Highland psychiatric hospital. During this time he chose not to speak - instead he wove a series of incredible costumes out of grass. These he hung on trees in the hospital grounds.

This blog follows the progress of HORSE + BAMBOO THEATRE as they develop and tour a show about Angus....

Friday, 27 January 2012

Great Fire in London

A couple of days in London, killing several birds with one visit. On the train back my Angus-mind keeps returning to two things in particular. First an extraordinary exhibition of paintings and sculptures by Anselm Kiefer at the White Cube gallery. Some months ago I blogged about Kiefer's work and how our set might gain something from incorporating some of the textures of his drawings. In the White Cube show the richness of the surface texture of the paintings is extraordinarily rich and quite ravishing - and it often looks as if it's in danger of falling off, so the paintings have an odd vulnerability, suggesting something like a ridiculously slow-motion theatre rather than the usual permanency one associates with painting. 


The second is the show 2 Dimensional Life of Her by Fleur Elise Noble (above), part of London International Mime Festival. I saw this at the Barbican this evening, just before rushing off to catch the late train. It was full of inspiring techniques, and I couldn't help spending almost as much time weighing up how some of the effects were achieved as simply enjoying it all. Probably the highlight of the show is when the whole stage appears to be on fire, and it's a truly powerful sequence despite understanding that this is simply a trick of film. I swear I felt the heat coming off the stage, and the fact that the characters we had been seeing were made largely of paper just added to the power of the scene. I'm planning a bonfire in 'Angus' and this convinced me that, done well, it could be really stunning. Oddly, despite the overwhelming visuals, I also realised that it was the accurate and very loud sound of the fire that was ultimately critical in making us believe in it.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

The last piece of the jigsaw

Helen sent me a message late yesterday: 'Gaelic Board have said YES. Great news to end the wk!' Meaning that Bòrd na Gàidhlig have agreed to funding the Angus tour. It was the last piece of the funding jigsaw, and without the support of BnG Creative Scotland's grant would have had to have been re-negotiated. This part of the support will go directly to funding a Gaelic musician and the spoken Gaelic sections - as well as bilingual material for publicity and marketing. 

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Gaelic singer needed....

A start has been made on a very rough model for a set - a way of working out what type and size of screens we'll need - very important given the use of film.

Perhaps more important, this advert has now been circulated:


We are seeking a female singer/ musician/ performer to tour with our forthcoming production of ‘Angus’, a visual and musical theatre performance about Angus MacPhee, the Uist-born ‘silent weaver’.

We are looking for a Gaelic-speaker to take a central role in a production which will be rehearsed in Lancashire from 5th June 2012, and then tour the Islands and Highlands until September (subject to funding).
Horse + Bamboo were founded in 1978 and are one of the UKs leading touring companies. We have a long history of touring throughout Scotland and the islands as well as the rest of the UK and Europe.
Dealine for applications 5th February 2012.
Please contact Esther Ferry-Kennington at for further details or call 01706 242 945 to discuss the post further.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Joys of Rethinking

One of the joys of having time to rework a script is the moment of awareness when one recognises that an idea was, in fact, bound by a previously unrecognised convention. 

Until the past week it never occurred to me that in imagining Angus's work I had somehow slipped into thinking of it almost wholly in terms of the pieces rescued by Joyce Laing; those pieces I had seen in her collection in Pittenweem. 

Then, in discussion with Alison, we realised that both Joyce herself, and Roger Hutchinson in 'The Silent Weaver' describe some of the exotic costumes that were reported to them by the staff at Craig Dunain. Weavings long lost, but extravagant pieces that sound as if the larger pieces still owned by Joyce (above) were simply sketches for bigger ideas. 

In The Silent Weaver, the farm manager at the hospital farm, Jock MacKay, is quoted "He (Angus) made a cap, you know, like a captain on a ship, and he made a coat, a swallow-tail coat..." Robert Poulson, a gardener at Craig Dunain, remembers "He wore his own hats most of the time...sometimes a straw fore-and-aft..." and Joyce herself quotes a nurse saying that once he made an 'opera coat'.

So I rewrote a scene where Angus appears in such a get-up; representing a climax of his time weaving at the hospital, and showing Angus almost as if he were appearing in a theatre production of his own devising, whereas in the earlier script the weavings themselves had been relegated to the role of mere props in his workshop garden. 

I sent off an email to Joanne B Kaar, outlining the idea, and worried that it might be a step too far for her - as so far she has, heroically, taken on the enormous job of replicating works by Angus that we can see today. Would this prove to be too much of a challenge - to re-imagine some of his most inventive pieces? Not at all, Joanne replied immediately - "Exciting, yes! Swallow-tail and sun-burst hat are now whirling around my head."

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

A trip to Manchester

Christina watching herself in 'Snow Mirror'

Christina and I met up with Alison as planned at the Whitworth Art Gallery to catch 'Dark Matters' in its last week. I visited the exhibition in November but neither Alison or Chris had seen it. I had been impressed, especially by Daniel Rozin's 'Snow Mirror', but I wanted us to start thinking about the way we could use video projection in 'Angus'. 

The Whitworth is one of my favourite art gallery spaces of all. Spacious, calm, friendly and generous - but in no way gimmicky or unecessarily demanding. I've known it for well over 40 years and still it improves with each visit. Alison and Chris loved the show - and we sat having lunch by the entrance talking about ways in which we could apply some of the ideas we had seen to our theatre piece. 

I've used video and film in our productions since 1983, in Needles in a Candleflame, when we re-created some of Georges Méliès films (now being remembered in Martin Scorcese's 'Hugo'). To me simple film and animation flows naturally in and out of puppetry - with shadow puppetry being the cross-over point. Nowadays, with film, animation and projection technology being so much easier to use and cheaper to buy, it has a natural place in our work - and to some extent it can be used to compensate for the fact that we can no longer afford to tour with a cast of 6, 7, or even 8 performers in the way we did in the 1980s. 

Sunday, 8 January 2012

New (year) ideas

A week back at Horse + Bamboo and things have moved on considerably, even after having a day at home with the seemingly inevitable cold. Alison and I spent three sessions talking through the script - which I last looked at early in September. After 4 months of it resting it was time to come at things afresh, and it was exciting just how many new ideas and possibilities emerged. The set too (the photo above was taken last summer when we were putting together a rough version) came in for reconsideration. 

The experience of working in Berneray (in July last year) with a rough set had made me feel that it was unnecessarily limited, and having reworked Alison's show Red Riding Hood this winter, which uses three wheeled frames very effectively, we both felt it might be useful to employ something similar for 'Angus', and that the use of mobile screens would give us more possibilities suggesting the various stage spaces (homes, hospitals) than relying totally on curtains on tracks. 

So next week work will start, for me, with looking at these new approached to the staging, and Alison will start planning some of the wooden puppets for the show. Christina, our technician, will soon be working closely with us - looking at how the lighting and video projections will best work within the set design. On Tuesday we're all planning to travel together to the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester to look at the 'Dark Matters' show and kick off a discussion about the use of projection technologies....

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Angus back in South Uist

On our visit to South Uist this past summer I revisited the Kildonan Centre, which has a fascinating collection of all sorts of artifacts, photographs, and a heritage and cultural amenity which includes a museum, a craft shop, a Fèis room for ceilidhs, music and dance, a cafe and an archaeology room. The museum itself, Taigh Tasgaidh Chill Donnain, is owned by the South Uist Historical Trust, and I wondered if it had within its collection any material relating to Angus MacPhee. The woman on the reception desk was helpful, but hadn't heard of Angus. To be fair she admitted that she was a fairly recent incomer and said she was certain other volunteers would know far more than she did herself. I said how wonderful it would be if a corner of the museum could be found to host a display about Angus, and mentioned this to other people I met on the island. 

Taigh Tasgaidh Chill Donnain or the Kildonan Centre

I was delighted to find the Creativity in Care website and a page about the exhibition at The Bishops Palace, Eden Court, Inverness towards the end of last year entitled 'Angus MacPhee & Other Memories' which contained some of Angus's woven artefacts. 

Creativity in Care has grown out of the work undertaken by Karrie Marshall and Chris King of Zenwing Puppets. Karrie and Chris were very helpful when we first started our exploration of Angus's background, specifically taking Esther and Helen to see the site of Craig Dunain. They have very kindly even provided a link to this blog (among other Angus related sites) on the Creativity in Care website. 

Excitingly, I noticed an update - "These pieces of Angus MacPhee’s work are going home to South Uist to the Kildonan Museum" , so it looks as if, at least for a short period, the museum will now be having a section about Angus and his work. The photographs below are from the Creativity in Care site, and the Kildonan Museum website is announcing a "Weaver of Grass' exhibition from April 2012.