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....

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Chris arrives - and the question of accuracy.

The Horse + Bamboo workshop continues to be full of people helping us with the final stages of making for Angus - in the main working to help Alison finish her mountain of carved hand, glove and string puppets. Alison is doing most of the carving herself, but pieces are being sanded, strung, assembled and then, finally, dressed by a small army of helpers. 

Yesterday Chris Spears joined us from Berneray, having travelled down from the Outer Isles on Monday. He helped me yesterday, improving on a small painted set of peat-moss or bla'r moine, and puppet racing horses for the Odaidh. Today he joined the group helping Alison. Lizzie Lempen of Lempen Puppet Theatre is also helping us for a couple of days.

The question of accuracy occurs frequently. For example in the Oidhche Challaig (New Year) section we need a caisein-uchd, a smouldering sheep-skin torch, but no-one, including Chris, has ever seen one. So some guess work has to take place. How far to go in the search is often an issue - especially when the scene is light-hearted, as with the above examples. But wherever  possible we use contemporary sources for information - so above (top) we see Christina making a horse-drawn cart, using period photographs by Margaret Fay Shaw as a source, while (lower image) Chris Spears is using a 1934 photograph by Werner Kissling as a model for panniers, or cliabh.

Finally Debby Waldron of BBC Alba emailed to discuss coming down during the rehearsal period to film us in advance of the tour, so they have some footage available for An Là, the Gaelic news broadcast. We are very happy to oblige.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Angus and the Dragon!

One of the more complex puppet jobs for Angus - Weaver of Grass, something that Alison Duddle is working on with Christina's help, is carving and assembling puppets based loosely on Sicilian marionettes. This is for a section of the show relating to Angus leaving Uist for war; it was the last time he was seen on the island before being returned as an invalid, with unspecified mental health problems. 

It's the beginning of a section of Angus's life that we know almost nothing about, and it heralds what must have been, for him, the traumatic period that eventually led to his breakdown. Because of the lack of information, among other things, I've chosen to represent this whole period at a kind of remove - giving it an archaic feel both formally as well as in the storyline. The going off to war puts me in mind of a tourney, a word incidentally I've always loved because not only does it mean 'taking part in a tournament', but because it sounds (and looks) so like 'journey' - and both of these things Angus surely undertook at this point in his life.

In particular I'm reminded of the anonymous pre-Shakespearean Tom O'Bedlam

....By a knight of ghostes and shadowes
I summon'd am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wild world's end.
Methinks it is no journey.

A wonderful lyric poem and allegorical journey that also inspired Kenneth Patchen's Journal of Albion Moonlight.

Above the photographs show Alison assembling the Dragon, which has yet to have its wings fitted, and the head of Angus as a Knight, with the armour that Christina has been making and fitting to the carved wood. 

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Volunteer time

We've a great team working here today - everyone making a big contribution to the Angus show. Above top, Amber, Hannah and Becca. In the centre photo Hannah working on a suitcase puppet show, and below Amber with her completed gas mask.

Christina, Alison and I are also sharing the studio space - all six of us are having to be super quiet - no sawing or hammering - because Loz in the music room immediately below us recording Kirsty Blackhall - cello and fiddle - for the Angus soundtrack.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Gas-masks, masks and horses...

Now that there's less than three weeks before rehearsals start there's a scramble to get things made and finished in time. The workshop is full of weird and wonderful things all in a half-completed state. A volunteer, Amber, is finishing the gas-masks started by the Portuguese interns (above) - nightmarish things for the scene where Angus suffers his schizophrenic breakdown; Jonny is making backstage racks to hold the 15 masks we're using in the show; Alison is carving horses (below)

Christina is working on a fire-effect for the caisein-uchd, sheeps wool and tallow torches used on New Years Eve - Hogmanay, or Oidhche Chullaig. Vanessa Card has tidied up the set and I've been able to finish the painting. Finally, Loz has started work on the music, and Daniella and Ellie on the animations....

Friday, 11 May 2012

Music and film

Two chicken puppets for Angus - Weaver of Grass

I've had a couple of days consolidating the film and music elements in the production script. As the artists working on the show are beginning to focus on their work the need to touch base about the different elements begins to get more important. So yesterday I met with Christina to decide of which bits of the footage I took in the islands last year we'll need have available for rehearsal; and also with Ellie Chaney about her ideas for her section of film - the part when Angus sets off on his horse to go, apparently, to war. 

Then this morning I had a long meeting with Loz Kaye to discuss the preliminary ideas for the music and the sound world. In this production having Mairi Morrison in the cast creates a lot of exciting opportunities, as Mairi brings her knowledge of Gaelic song and, of course, her singing. There's also Kirsty Blackhall, who we auditioned in Glasgow and is now working with Loz to create samples for use in the music tracks. Following on from this discussion I talked again with Daniella Orsini about the three animated sections she is working on, sending her  photographs of Angus and discussing Loz's ideas as to pace and mood because, of course, the films and music will work very closely together.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Carvings and animations

Alison's little puppet pile is growing larger - above are just some of the puppet parts waiting to be assembled. A puppet head of Angus's father is on the right; his sister in the middle, and on the left young Angus and an even smaller head of his dad. Carving continues with just a month now before rehearsal, and the limbs are beginning to be assembled. At the back in the photograph you can just make out several hands. 

I've a long job-list including new masks, simple puppets, and props for specific scenes. I'm also doing paintings and sketches for some of the animated sequences that will be projected onto the set as part of the story. Including the scenes when Angus begins to fall into schizophrenia:

These will be interpreted by film-maker Daniella Orsini, whose recent film 'Being Bradford Dillman' is picking up prizes everywhere. Daniella will be creating several animated film sequences for Angus - Weaver of Grass.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The absence of words

The absence of text, of words, has an effect. Recently I’ve read several books on Celtic culture as part of the process of soaking up information about the history of the Hebrides, of the Gaeltacht, of Scotland (and Britain and Europe generally for that matter) in preparation for the Angus MacPhee production.

What all these books say, in their own way, is that Celtic culture often tends to be considered as a pre-history, simply because (unlike the Romans) it didn’t leave behind writings about itself. It left behind plenty of words all right, but it was as an oral culture rather than a written culture and this massively affects our perception of Celtic history, and the way the culture has developed through to the present day. Just look, for example, at the Gaelic song tradition; how these wonderful songs are still interpreted, modified and passed on through the ear rather than through notation.

It dawned on me how Angus’ own story reflects this in an odd way. His silence leaves us to make our own interpretation about his inner life – including what his woven artefacts meant to him. We look at these objects and are left to our own ideas and reflections as to their meaning - without Angus having given us any kind of explanation beyond the objects themselves.

Actually I’m used to this in another context. The theatre I’ve been making with Horse + Bamboo for nearly 35 years has nearly always been wordless and audiences interpret the stories and meanings through the images they see and the music they hear. This, in my experience, allows for a certain kind of richness and depth of interpretation, even when it demands and brings about its own disciplines and problems.

With ‘Angus –Weaver of Grass’ I hope we can find a way – and again it will be without using many words - of making Angus himself more tangible. In the books I’ve read and the film I’ve seen about Angus he seems to be largely absent – an Angus-shaped hole. There's plenty of context; everything goes on around him, but Angus just hovers there with that slight smile on his face, weaving away and with a bunch  of grass in his hands. I would like to feel that wordlessly, echoing both his distant culture and also his own choice of silence, we’re able to make something that brings Angus himself front stage.