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....

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Goodbye to the Fringe!

The Edinburgh Fringe Experience is over - and we survived! In fact interest in the show grew and grew and the final shows were all sell-outs. 

The reactions have continued to be overwhelmingly positive. Standing ovations, comments left in the book, and critical feedback from others. Reviews in festival mags, while generally positive have been more mixed and the 'Total Theatre' critic, while acknowledging a standing ovation at the end of the show, seemed perplexed by the Gaelic and felt confused by the narrative - although this seems a singular response, among the many, many that go out of their way to mention the clarity and ultimate simplicity of the story.

So now the cast have a week or so of holiday, and I get back to planning the future programme with Alison and Esther - until we get back on the road and meet up at the end of next week at Lyth Arts Centre, right at the top of Scotland in Caithness - a venue we first visited in 1983 or thereabouts. It's Joanne B Kaar territory!

One of the perks of the tour has been an excuse to spend time in Scotland again - always a special treat and enhanced this time by the fact that in 2012 the summer weather that southern England normally claims for its own seems to have migrated far northwards. Part of the joy is the travelling around, and the train journeys can be especially magical. The trip to Edinburgh across the famous Forth Road Bridge is one of my all time favourites (above). 

Monday, 20 August 2012

A visit to Edinburgh

The Angus set at the Scottish Storytelling Centre
I'm just back from an eventful, if highly concentrated, visit to Edinburgh this weekend. 

The main reason was to see how 'Angus - Weaver of Grass' had settled into its current home - a 4pm show for 10 days at the Scottish Storytelling Centre. In particular to see how the two main concerns we had (the things I wrote about two blogs ago) were being dealt with, and if they affected the performance. 

The first - the short get in and preparation time allowed us for each show - had already been resolved. The cast, helped by Christina, had easily dealt with this and, given that all of our set could be stored away in close proximity to the stage, it simply wasn't now a problem. 

The second - the effect of the shallow stage on our filmed projections - was having an impact. The central section of the performance, which relied heavily on the films, was noticeably weaker compared to how it had been during the Highlands/Islands leg and the storytelling had lost its tautness as a result. Although Christina's carefully planned back-up mitigates the worst affects of this it doesn't totally solve all the issues. So I spent time Sunday morning looking at how we can deal with those small issues. Theatre is extraordinary in this way - tot up the duration of the on-stage 'problems' and they add up to no more than 15 seconds in total. But those 15 seconds of slight hiatus and uncertain focus can really make a show sag, like a taut elastic suddenly giving way. 

Anyway the effort worked - yesterdays show was superb; a standing ovation and rave feedback from the audience. A reporter from a Chicago based classical music radio station was  there and took the opportunity to interview me. 'This sums it all up', she said excitedly, 'it epitomises what the Edinburgh Festival is all about'. 


Edinburgh Festival is a weird phenomenon. Arriving in the city and immediately hitting the crowds and the market-place atmosphere, my first reaction was to run away and get back on the train. But gradually you find yourself relaxing into it and soon it becomes totally exhilarating. But sometimes judgements seem odd, even upside down. The Assembly is hosting a Russian season, including Akhe - one of the most interesting and unique theatre companies around. I went to see their show 'Mr Carmen' - amazing, but with an audience of less than 20! Yet go to one of the Comedy tents and its like a summer weekend at Blackpool - thousands of people having a total ball.

We're lucky. On a visit to set up the shows earlier on in the year we were told that even our central and well-know venue and location may only get audiences of 6 or 7 people and that 20 is a good number for the fringe festival. We're getting audiences of somewhere between 55 and 90, which is excellent. Reviews too - rave reviews from the audiences; slightly mixed from the reviewers. But among them, this - "Horse + Bamboo deserves proper recognition for their remarkable achievement".

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

A few more comments

A few more comments from recent shows of 'Angus'...

"Moved to silent tears"

"Superb, silence of actors highlighted beautifully by haunting voice. Use of puppets, mask and film all added to the production. Wonderful"

"Bha e cho breagha - uabhasach jheir alaimm! Bha na h-ovain iongantach breagha. Cho somplidh ach ag radh moran...ceud taing"

"Absolutely amazing! What a portrait of a soul caught in a world not made for it - who finds healing in a unique connection to nature. Inspiring creativity!! Thank you so much"

"What an amazing show! The best afternoon I've spent in a long time!! I'll be recommending it to everyone I know going to the festival and anyone else too. Thank you"

"Fior, Fior alaimm. Tiam haidh agus tursach - agus cho simplidh! Tapaidh Leibh"

"Thank you so much for this performance - the emotion that is portrayed around such difficult subjects is so much more profound than shown through media like film"

and from the Gairloch & District Times 

"...simple but evocative film sequences, sensitive interweaving of well-chosen and delicately broadcast sound effects, especially of birds and the natural world, contributed to a unique theatrical experience...brilliantly exemplifying the way harmonious use of modern technology can complement, without ever overwhelming, exceptionally subtle professional acting."

Saturday, 11 August 2012

At The SSC

In three days time the touring company, Mairi, Frances, Jonny, and Mark, will reassemble after a well deserved week-long break and travel to Edinburgh where Angus - Weaver of Grass will open at 4pm on Thursday 16th at the Scottish Storytelling Centre. Once there they will give 10 performances, finishing on Sunday the 26th. 

Horse + Bamboo formed in 1978 and has been touring shows since that time, but we've never yet performed at the Edinburgh Festival. So this is a first for us, and it's going to be an interesting experience. One of the reasons we've never performed at the Festival is that it's very difficult to find the right venue. Anyone who thinks that touring is just a matter of sticking a few props and screens on the stage, opening the doors and then stepping out from behind a curtain and acting away is sadly misinformed. Each show we put on takes between 4 and 5 hours to unload and assemble the set and props, including the lights, projectors and sound equipment. After that it's sensible for the performers to have a minimum of an hours break before they perform; an hour in which they relax and focus their attention in preparation for the performance. So we usually ask the venue for an absolute minimum of 5 hours to 'get-in'.

In Edinburgh at Festival time, even at a professional, well-equipped, and understanding venue like the Scottish Storytelling Centre, you get an hour and a half. This is because they put on four shows by four different companies each day, and each company has to install their own show afresh for each performance. I've heard of venues that allow you just 15 minutes. Of course at the SSC we can have most of our lights already rigged and focused, and some of the screens (I hope) can be hidden behind the SSCs stage curtains - but for us anyway an hour and a half is going to be a tough ask. I guess it is for most theatre companies, but Angus is highly technical, with a load of puppets, masks, props, projectors'll get the picture if and when you see it. 

There's also the issue that the depth of the stage at the SSC is about 60cms short of what we need to project the video images at the right size. Touring around venues is always a matter of compromise on something - blackout, acoustics, lack of curtains, changing rooms, even having a stage at all can be a luxury - so having a stage-depth problem is par for the course. But it's going to create some problems for us. Fortunately the SSC have given us a technical day before the show opens to sort this, and any other problems out. 

We're going to be helped enormously in this by Christina Eddowes, who works as part of the arts team at H+B as a creative technician. Chris has been preparing for these problems all of last week, and will be going to Edinburgh for the duration in order to support the performers. As I say, it's going to be an interesting experience.....

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

A short breather for the cast

The first leg of the Angus - Weaver of Grass tour is over. 

The last show was on Sunday evening at the Pittenweem Festival, in Fife. Like so many of the halls we have played in on this leg it was far from being a well-equipped theatre. The blackout was limited; the stage too small; the facilities almost non-existent. But this was more than made up by the friendliness and enthusiasm of the helpers and the palpable excitement surrounding the event. The hall was full and the reception - once more - was wildly enthusiastic. Many people had travelled long distances to see the show, and commented how worthwhile it had been making the journey. Plenty of people were in tears at the end, and I heard many comments similar to 'Amazing, I've never seen anything like it before', or 'The best thing that I've seen for ages'.

The short trailer for the show is now up on You Tube:

One of the special things about the Pittenweem show was that Joyce Laing was in the audience, since she lives in the village and her Art Extraordinary Gallery is on its High Street. Joyce, as anyone who has followed this blog will know, is responsible for us all knowing about Angus MacPhee - and hence for the existence of our play. 

Joyce was very warm about the production, and invited us all to her castle (yes, she lives in a wee castle next to the gallery) for a drink afterwards. It's in the nature of these tours that after the show is over, and the last of the audience have drifted away, there are still a good few hours work left for the company - and of course Pittenweem was no exception. So I helped with the dismantling and packing away process for half an hour or so, and then went along to Joyce's castle as the sole representative of Horse + Bamboo, since the others still had another hour of work to do. There, over a large dram, we discussed the show and Angus, and the state of theatre, and the wonderful cast, with Joyce and a couple of her friends, Jane and Gordon.

So now its a well earned week of rest for Jonny, Frances, Mairi and Mark, before we take the show to Edinburgh for the Festival - we're at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, right at the heart of the Royal Mile. Please join us there!

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The beating Celtic heart

Reports from the tour group - Frances, Jonny, Mairi and Mark - tell me that the show on Raasay was well received by an audience of 22 (remembering that this is over 10% of the island's population), and that the show at Sabhal Mor Ostaig on Skye (the Gaelic College) was sold out and a tremendous success. Now they have a trip to make with the show out to the island of Eigg.

Meanwhile I made a visit to the Clootie Well, on the Black Isle. This I first came across when prospecting a possible horse-drawn tour in the 1980s. It impressed me then and it did again.

Now it appears to have been grudgingly accepted, with signage and a parking arrangement. Then it was unpopular with the authorities, in the shape of the local council. An eyesore, a health hazard. But local people fiercely protected it, a site with healing properties.

Today I met a Glaswegian mother and son there; 'the Druids first built it', the son told me and it was his mothers first visit - 'amazed' she said. When I mentioned that 30 years ago the council tried to clean it up they were aghast 'they daren't!'. It's this sense of ownership that sets it apart from the normal 'heritage' site; it's still potent, still of the people rather than sterilised by officialdom; alive - in its weird way.

And of course it took me straight back to Angus. The garments on trees, the healing properties. Just another part of the beating Celtic heart.