This review appeared on The Daily Shift on July 24 2012.
Hell, it turns out, is not fire or brimstone, but rather a small B&B on the outskirts of the Scottish town of Kelso, which looks out on an Asda carpark. And instead of torture, and pitchforks in places pitchforks should not be, your eternal punishment is completing jigsaw puzzles and categorising every book that both has and hasn’t existed.
This intriguing vision of a banal hell is the work of David Greig, whose play The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, produced by the National Theatre of Scotland and directed by Wils Wilson, is finishing its Galway Arts Festival run tonight, Sunday, July 22. This riotously funny play is an adventure into a world where magic, myth and the everyday collide.
It’s December 2010. Scotland is in deep freeze. Prudencia (Madeleine Worrall) an uptight academic specialising in Scottish ballads, is journeying through the snow-snow which we, the audience, have created by tearing up serviettes- to a conference in Kelso. Anyone whose had the misfortune to study humanities in college will get a laugh at the the pomposity talked at the conference, all post-post-structuralism and capitalist hegemony. Prudencia’s mortal enemy Colin Syme (Andy Clark) is everything she hates: he analyses football chants, happy slapping and Facebook statuses as if they have folkloric meaning. Prudencia is old school; she loathes the title of the conference “Border Ballads- neither ballads nor borders”. There is no beauty anymore, she thinks, gazing out at the snow, and falling off her chair.
After this embarrassing incident, Prudencia just wants to get home. But there’s a problem. The snow has fallen so heavily that there is no sign of her car or Colin’s motorbike; besides the roads are closed. So in classic screwball fashion, she is stuck with the man she hates (and the one who makes her feel oddly flustered) and there’s only one bed in the B&B. Colin, making the best of the situation, decides to head to the local pub, where to Prudencia’s delight there is to be a folk night. Except the landlord’s definition of folk is a karaoke version of Katy Perry.
Prudencia is in hell, and the patrons of the pub are drunkenly screaming at her to sing. So she runs, out into the night, and so begins her strange undoing.
She thinks she has found sanctuary in the B&B, but it’s hardly a massive spoiler to tell you that the owner, Nick (David McKay), is not all he seems. Her descent into hell is a journey of self-discovery and a battle for her very soul.
This clever play can be enjoyed at several levels. It takes a look at modernity and antiquity and whether anyone can say today’s pop culture is less valid than the popular culture of centuries ago (after all, that’s what the ballads were). Some day, a pub somewhere may quieten as someone launches into ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’by Kylie Minogue. It parodies, too, the ridiculousness of academia, a world which is almost beyond parody at this stage. And of course, it examines the nature of reality, magic and myths; two strange sights Prudencia encounters are explained away with local common sense that still allows for the existence of ghosts and the Devil.
There’s no fourth wall, hardly any props, and no backdrops. The audience is invited to use their imagination and to participate. For example, we are told our applause isn’t desultory enough when Prudencia reads her paper at the conference. One lucky young man got very up close and personal with Annie Grace, and actress whose spine-tingling singing is a real highlight. A lovely touch is the addition of ‘Devil’s Brew’ beermats at each tables. Oh, and I almost forgot; the entire thing is written in clever rhyming couplets.
This play is definitely not one to be missed. Catch it tonight at the Radisson Live Lounge, or watch out for further performances at home and abroad.
The Daily Shift‘s Roisin Peddle reviews The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, which finishes its hit run at the Galway Arts Festival tonight…
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