Angus – Weaver of Grass

21 Jul 2012 in Dance & Drama, Highland, Showcase

Macphail Centre, Ullapool, 19 July 2012, and touring

IF YOU see one piece of theatre this year, see this.

IT IS a compassionate performance, telling the life story of Angus MacPhee, who was born and died on South Uist, but in between suffered the worst that British society could offer to a person with mental health problems. But this is not just a story about suffering, it’s about dignity and the healing power of art.

Weaver of Grass

Weaver of Grass

The play, created by Bob Frith and the Horse + Bamboo Theatre, mixes human actors and puppetry in a completely original way. Actors wearing masks interact with puppets, shifting seamlessly from character to puppeteer and back. A clever set, superb lighting and soundtrack, plus use of film and animation, and a combination of Gaelic and English words and songs, make this a many layered and fascinating experience. It sounds complex, and it is, but it’s far from difficult. The performances are witty and moving and the story is utterly compelling.

After a happy rural Hebridean childhood, Angus became a soldier during the second world war, during which he developed schizophrenia. He was incarcerated for 50 years in Craig Dunain hospital in Inverness, but for most of that time he didn’t require drugs and, in a more enlightened era, would probably not have been in hospital at all.

The delusions Angus experienced first as a soldier and then as he became more ill are brought vividly to the stage in a mix of movement, war footage, animation, puppetry, light and sound. The formal treatments meted out by the hospital included electro-convulsive therapy, and the scenes in the play where this is shown are among its most powerful.

Fortunately Angus found his own therapy on the hospital farm, where he wove grass, using techniques he had watched as a child for practical things like halters for horses. He created all sorts of grass objects: hats, bags and even giant boots, gloves, coats and suits, which he would hang on trees or hide under bushes. They were often burnt by hospital staff along with dead leaves, until eventually they were recognised as the artworks they clearly were.

The reproductions of these objects, made for the play by Caithness-based textile artist Joanne B Kaar, are quite extraordinary. My only criticism of the play is that the long passage of years as Angus developed his mastery of grass was rather too swiftly played out. I wished that there had been more time spent exploring this craftwork, and the healing that it brought.

Throughout his long hospitalisation, Angus did not speak, and the play reflects this through a minimal use of voice, restricted to songs and a few brief bursts of narration. Mairi Morrison’s singing is superb – unfussy, clear and heartfelt – and the blend of rich Gaelic and a pared-down sufficiency of English is original and very evocative.

Altogether, this is the best piece of theatre I have seen in a long time. Catch it if you can. There is an accompanying exhibition about mental health, which adds yet another dimension to this really important and creative enterprise.

© Mandy Haggith, 2012