Dundee Rep’s touring play, Justin Young’s In My Father’s Words is now being performed in the Highlands after premiering in the Central Belt. Angus Peter Campbell plays dementia sufferer Don Bennett who has a difficult relationship with his son Louis. Known as a poet, writer, actor and journalist, Angus Peter started his working life as a journalist for the West Highland Free Press, BBC Radio and Grampian television. In 1992, he published The Greatest Gift, the first of several volumes of poetry. The poems are in English, though his later work has been written in English, Gaelic, and Scots. He has also written novels – An Oidhche Mus Do Sheol Sinn (The Night Before We Sailed), and Là a’ Deanamh Sgeil Do Là (Day Speaketh Unto Day) in Gaelic, while 2006’s Invisible Islands was written in English and last year’s, The Girl On The Ferry Boat, was the first book to be published in Gaelic and English editions at the same time. In 2006, he acted in Seachd: The Inaccessible Pinnacle, a Gaelic language movie set on Skye where he now lives with his family. Angus Peter is now known to a new generation as Neilly Beag in the Katie Morag TV series. Below, he talks about In My Father’s Words, his role as Don – and his career.
1 I think the audiences will know when they come to see the play that Don has dementia. I wondered how you tapped into portraying that. Maybe everything is tightly scripted, but I imagine you have had to do research of your own to play a role like that believably? Did you feel it was a challenge when you first saw the script?
Angus Peter: The character I play, Don Bennett, does have dementia but that is only part of his character. It is, of course, a very debilitating illness and one that is harrowing for any family to deal with – it is also an increasingly common illness, given the demographies of an ageing population. But Don Bennett was Don Bennett before the onset of dementia, and I think the real interest is in trying to discover this person whose memories have become confused because of the onset of dementia. I think that all raises fundamentally important questions about what it is to be human – to what degree are we defined or shaped by memory, and if our memory becomes fragmented do our personalities then also become fragmented, or are we what we always really were – mysteries to ourselves and to one another?
2 How did you get the role – was it something you sought out as it has at its heart many questions about language which I think – from what I have read about you – would have been of immediate interest?
AP: I have previously worked with the Dundee Rep and they approached me and asked me if I’d be interested in playing the part. The great actress Annie Louise Ross is a member of the Dundee Rep Ensemble and she recommended me to them. Annie is from Golspie and works with me on the BBC series of the Katie Morag books, where she plays the role of Granny Island,
3 Did your view of Don and the play change much during the rehearsal period?
AP: As in life, a character in a play never (or rarely) works in isolation. His character is shaped by and reacts towards the others around him, and it has been wonderful to explore the complex relationships between Don Bennett (the father), Louis Bennett (the son) and Flora (the home carer). In that sense it’s a (dysfynctional) family play about relationships: how much do we really know or understand about each other, and if that understanding is not there, how can there be love?
4 In the period since you grew up, has the world’s/Scotland’s/Gaelic speakers/non-Gaelic speakers attitude to the language and culture changed in a good way? If so, what would you feel would be the most positive aspects about the way the language is regarded these days?
AP: The most positive thing is that – generally speaking, with the usual exceptions – speaking Gaelic is considered a normal and reasonable thing to do, as oppossed to some kind of backward activity.
5 Your performance has been praised in the reviews I have read. How important is acting to you and your own creative fulfillment?
AP: Acting is never pretending – it is being. You inhabit the role and, as best as you can, become that person. I suppose that gives you some awareness of the flexibility of our lives and that we are all capable of being a whole number of things – for example, just about the greatest football player in the world, Luiz Suarez, can at the same time take bites out of fellow professionals! As with writing, acting has to do with exploring existential states of being.
6 On your website, you name yourself first as writer, then poet, then actor. Many people across the North and East of Scotland will also remember you as a news reporter on what was Grampian TV and you also write for the West Highland Free Press. That is quite a sheaf of jobs/talents and abilities. Does that fluidity make life easier for a creative person – or harder to focus? Do you have to feed one at a time?
AP: I find all aspects of life fascinating. The great Elizabethan poet and preacher John Donne said that if we woke up one morning and saw a ball of fire in the sky we would gaze in wonder. But because we see it every day (it’s called the sun!) we don’t think anything of it. So that, for me, poetry, music, acting, sculpture, painting, woodwork, fishing boats, football, rose growing in a garden etcetera etcetera are all wonders, and I dislike the artificial walls folk put up between them. Sometimes I am astonished about how closed off people are – I know of folk who would never go to a classical concert claiming "It’s not my thing" and at the same time others who would never go to a Gaelic event ‘because I don’t understand the language’. I don’t really "understand" Mozart but I would still walk a thousand miles to listen to his music.
7 Something you wrote about first discovering literature revealed that the first book of Gaelic poetry you were given to read at school featured dead poets and that it prompted you to think that "poetry belonged to the dead". It seems you have done your part to change that for the next generation. How much did it mean to you to receive the Bardic crown?
AP: I enjoyed getting dressed up! I had the great privilege of having a great living poet teaching me English when I was at school - Iain Crichton Smith. How we would have loved this play I’m it the moment, which was inspired in fact by one of Iain’s poems - The Exiles - which the playwright, Justin Young, read on a poster on the London Underground some 10 years ago. The play deals with many issues that were so dear to Iain - exile and language amongst them.
8 I saw you read some of the poems from your book of poems Aibisidh (ABC) at the Blas grand finale at Eden Court last year. The performance was quirky, the wit sparkling and both Gaelic and English co-existed happily – and inclusively – for the audience. Does playfulness come naturally to you and how important do you think it is for a writer and performer?
AP: I think any sense of self-importance or pomposity is deadly for an artist, and that any work should tremble with a sense of its fragility, if not its ridiculousness. I’m not sure that I trust any person, or work, that doesn’t have a huge sense of humour. Unfortunately I know far too many critics (in particular) who seem to have had a humour by-pass.
9 You will also be known to the newest generation as Neilly Beag in the Katie Morag TV series which is filmed on Lewis. What has been the most fun aspect of/memorable moment from playing the character?
AP: The cast and the crew have all been great and Neilly Beag’s character is just splendid. i like to think of him as a cross between Para Handy and Rab C Nesbitt and I enjoyed his moment in the shop asking for his after shave. ‘What kind?’ the shopkeeper asks. ‘Something fresh, with a hint of mystery’ Neilly Beag replies. Is that a definition of art?
10 If you were allowed to bring back one moment of your life to experience again, what would it be? And if there was one wish to do something or go somewhere that you think might now pass you by, what would that be?
AP: I recently wrote a poem, which might answer this question.
Here’s the poem
Nam b’ urrainn dhomh m’ athair
a thoirt air ais beò
taigh a thogail dhomh,
oir b’ e an saor a b’ fhèarr
san t-saoghal mhòr,
an obair-fhiodh aige
coltach ri Donatello
‘s an obair-cloiche
coltach ri Michelangelo fhèin
agus aon uair
‘s gun togaidh e an taigh dhomh,
le na ballachan-cloiche
agus na cabair-daraich
agus an uinneag mhòr dhùblaichte dìreach an-siud
le sealladh a-null Caolas Bharraigh
dh’iarrainn air suidhe taobh an stòbh
agus tòiseachadh aig an toiseach
agus innse dhomh
ciamar a bu chòir dhomh a bhith beò.
If I could bring my father
back to life
I’d ask him
to build me a house
for he was the finest joiner
in the whole world,
and his stone-work
like Michelangelo himself
he’d built the house for me,
with stone walls
and oak roof-beams
and the large double window just there
with a view over the Sound of Barra
I’d ask him to sit by the stove
and begin at the beginning
and tell me
how to live.
11 … And what is the next thing for you following the end of the tour of In My Father’s Words?
AP: I’m writing as novel about fairies and artificial intelligence.
The play is on at Eden Court, tonight (Monday) and tomorrow (Tuesday), July 14-15; Wednesday (July 16) in Ardross Hall; SEALL at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Skye, on Tuesday (July 22) and at the MacPhail Centre, Ullapool, next Thursday (July 24).