“Few playwrights would find the chutzpah to rhyme ‘dangerous speed’ with ‘Berwick-on-Tweed’, and even fewer would have the skill to make it funny…”
It has been gathering acclaim for the last three years, so the chances are you’ve already heard of The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart. And if you’ve picked up a passing reference to a few of its themes – witchcraft, devilry, a damsel dragged into Hell – you might be picturing a grimly ancient story, set on a desolate moor a handful of centuries ago. But think again. The eponymous Prudencia Hart isn’t a mediaeval wench, but a thoroughly modern and thoroughly capable woman. And her “strange undoing” happens at a conference. An academic conference. In Kelso.
That’s just the first of the pleasant incongruities which define David Greig’s now-celebrated script. He’s penned a bawdy and raucous play – but it’s shamelessly intellectual, too. It pays homage to the fine traditions of the Border ballads, yet it derides those who try too hard to understand them. And for this repeat run in Edinburgh, even the performance space is a kind of contradiction: built like a church, but laid out like a pub, with the audience clustered round tables and a well-stocked bar close at hand.
Echoing the ballads whose study is Prudencia’s life work, Greig’s script is written in verse – and like all the best examples of their type, his rhyming couplets invite groans as much as laughter. Few playwrights would find the chutzpah to rhyme “dangerous speed” with “Berwick-on-Tweed”, and even fewer would have the skill to make it funny. The boisterous, free-wheeling spirit of the poetry extends to the performance too; you’ll find you spend a fair part of the evening swivelling in your seat, as you strain to follow the actors cavorting around (and often atop) the bar tables.
Some of that cavorting isn’t for the faint of heart, but when you look past the music and the drunken ribaldry, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is far subtler than it seems. Greig’s script is filled with sly self-references, and he frequently builds biting humour around things guaranteed to annoy the educated elite. His characters are stereotypes, but oh-so-delightfully drawn – the feminist, the populist, the blokeish boor – and he’s particularly incisive in his deconstruction of Scottish academe, with its self-obsessive tendency to find fashionable hidden meanings among once-straightforward tales.
It’s a demanding production for the five-strong cast, who are required to be both strong actors and capable musicians too. Melody Grove holds things together as the poised Prudencia, descending into a delightful blend of primly-accented profanity, as her day – no, her eternity – begins to go awry. Some details of Wils Wilson’s direction stand out as well, especially the striking use of hand-held torches as Prudencia’s world turns to black.
But there’s one shortcoming which does, to a small but definable degree, undo Prudencia Hart. Notwithstanding a few poignant interludes, the play only truly works when it barrels relentlessly forward – hurtling from jig to caper to karaoke session, never pausing, lest a moment’s hesitation let mood-killing cynicism creep back into its audience’s minds; but sometimes the barrel-ride stalls. Too often they go for one repetition too many, or prolong a joke for just a beat too long. And when you do have time to watch with a more jaundiced eye, you suddenly realise that – for a two-and-a-half-hour play – both plot and character development are really rather thin.
But as Prudencia herself suggests, it’s folly to search too hard for a deeper meaning; sometimes, it’s enough to recognise beauty. And this modern ballad does do something beautiful – it creates a precious sense of joy-filled unity, powerful enough to make a straight-laced Edinburgh audience sing and sway like a football crowd. It’s not the most tightly-plotted narrative, but it’s a theatrical experience like almost no other. If you’ve strangely missed Prudencia Hart for the last three years, undo that omission now.
Reviewer: Richard Stamp (Seen 19 March)
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