Edinburgh Fringe 2012
Through masks, puppetry and Gaelic song Horse and Bamboo tell the story of Angus MacPhee who wove special things from grass.
Angus – Weaver of Grass is based on the true story of Angus MacPhee who lived in Iochdar in South Uist. MacPhee became mentally ill while serving in the in the Second World War and was institutionalised and subjected to electro-shock therapy. He barely spoke for the next 50 years, but he had a special talent for weaving extraordinary items, such as ropes, hats, coats and trousers, from grass and leaves. This work was later acclaimed as outsider art and displayed in galleries.
Horse+Bamboo Theatre present the story through a mixture of masks, puppets and projections. The play is bilingual in Gaelic and English, but the acting and puppetry is performed wordlessly, reflecting Angus’s life of silence, with short bursts of Gaelic and English narration and Gaelic song from narrator Mairi Morrison to explain what is going on.
These songs are all well-known Gaelic songs and provide a sort of structure and narration in their own right with the various types of song set the mood of different scenes and the lyrics complementing the action.
Mairi Morrison’s has a wonderful clear voice and her singing is one of the great strengths of the performance. The live songs are backed up by a soundtrack of traditional music, which is also beautiful and very well matched to the play, but it would have been nice to have that also performed live, as the sound quality of the recorded music wasn’t particularly good.
The English narration isn’t a full translation of what is said in Gaelic; it is just the bare essentials, but because the emphasis is on the visual performance, it would be possible for non-Gaelic speakers to follow the story just through the mime and the little English explanation, although there is certainly an enhanced experience for those who understand the Gaelic.
Although the performance was moving, even without prior knowledge of the background story, it would be helpful to have a programme that explained a bit about Angus MacPhee, particularly for English speakers, but also for Gaels not familiar with his life.
The set is a collection of simple white menhir-like slabs, which are used both as a neutral backdrop to represent various places, both indoor and outdoor, and also as screens onto which images are projected. It is very effective and used imaginatively with the changing layout of the white blocks suggesting different locations from a house to a sanatorium to a garden.
The scenes where Angus receive the shock treatment are particularly emotional, but handled well by having him behind a one of the blocks representing a hospital screen, so the trauma is suggested rather than seen.
The white background and the silent acting give the whole play a storytelling feel, as if it was a folktale or myth, something more transcendent than the true story of one man.
The actors wear oversized masks, which are extremely well made in their detail of facial expressions, and Angus’s in particular looks just like he does in photos. The mask is set into a slight smile, which works very well to convey a sense of him being gently happy but introspective, and the extra-large head emphasises his simplicity, giving the character a childlike aura.
Another nice touch is that the play includes woven replicas of some of the actual items made by Angus MacPhee.
Both the acting and the direction are superb, with the actors swapping smoothly between acting in masks and being represented by puppets and back again. The switch between scenes also flows smoothly as the set is moved about continually to form different combinations. This never impedes the performance; rather it is incorporated into it.
Perhaps the most striking scene is when Angus is released from the asylum and he stands against the backdrop with resplendent multicolours projected onto the backdrop behind him so he seems radiant. It’s a pity the play could not have finished on this visually and emotionally stunning moment, but there was more to tell.
Horse and Bamboo have done a wonderful job, creating a piece that is so much than the story of one man.