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Home arrow Archive: Earlier Fringes arrow Archive: Edinburgh 2011 arrow The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart
Published on Saturday, 13 August 2011

5 stars (Critic's Choice)

Ghillie Dhu
2-7, 9-14, 16-21, 23-27 Aug, 3:00pm-5:30pm
Reviewed by Sarah Hill

 Recommended for age 14+ only.

In the warm embrace of a whisky-scented pub, a lively folk session starts up and a story is told. Three hours later, emerging into the later afternoon drizzle of Princes Street, I glance around me – and for a moment the great city of Edinburgh appears strange and unfamiliar. Be prepared, for The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is no straightforward pub lock-in; it’s one that will subtly manipulate your perceptions of reality, transporting you to another realm entirely.

The National Theatre of Scotland present to the Fringe their wonderfully spirited production of David Greig’s new play, a devilishly meandering theatre ballad, interspersed with knee-slapping spine-tingling folk riffs. It hardly matter that this tale thematically concerns the supernatural, for its form is magical enough.  Seated in the charming Guillie Dhu, its vaulted space alive to a fusion of music, spoken word and action on all sides, you’d be made of stone not to get swept along. But, who is Prudencia Hart, and where to begin her ‘strange undoing’?

‘A ballad starts where a ballad starts’ – or so we’re told – and Prudencia’s goes something like this: in the depth of winter, the purse-lipped heroine of our tale travels to the Scottish Borders to attend a conference. Stranded in the snow at midnight on winter’s solstice, with only her cocksure colleague for company, one nightmare is replaced by another: she soon finds herself trapped in a pub lock-in with a band of eccentric locals… and the Devil himself. But just as this tale appears to be descending into a full-scale farce, she loses herself, or becomes ‘undone’, and magic descends as the buttoned-up academic is taken on a voyage of self-discovery.

And all in spoken verse. Greig certainly knows how to spin a wildly outlandish yarn, and his use of language is immensely striking; a tongue-in-cheek tour-de-force of the traditional poetic form, complete with references to Lady Gaga and Facebook. It is also beautifully structured, full of twists and turns, gracefully moving between moments of affecting intensity and utter frivolity. Though the first half rips along with terrific speed and energy, the tone markedly shifts in the second – a necessity in the context of the story. I felt it was to the detriment of the pacing, however, which sagged a little, and the physical theatre elements, though poignant, were also a somewhat repetitive.

However, for as lengthy a performance as this, the pace was otherwise sustained incredibly well. That’s due not only to very inventive direction, full of imaginative uses of space and audience interaction, but the superb, five-strong cast who share the narrative between them, batting it back and forth across the room; seamlessly finishing one another’s sentences with impeccable timing. It was a particular joy to see such a multi-talented ensemble so evidently enjoy themselves, and with infectious enthusiasm.

As may be expected from a tale inspired by the Border Ballads, much of the humour of Greig’s writing is derived from unpicking the fabric of Scottish identity – its intricacies, ironies and contradictions – with many a sharp but kindly poke at folk-ballad culture. As a young English person from the Midlands, I was, admittedly, confronted by my ignorance, and a little dismayed to overhear a local man whisper to his companion, mid-guffaw, ‘I’m glad I didn’t bring Lucy – she wouldn’t have got it.’ I’m sure, like Lucy, there was a lot I was in fear of not ‘getting’, but all the same, there was an awful lot still to appreciate. Even if the content was at times wonderfully silly, it was nonetheless thoroughly educative: Greig weaves a fascinating dialogue between young and old – tradition and the modern world – insightfully examining and questioning issues of Scottish ‘authenticity’.

The Strange Undoing, wonderfully complex but highly accessible, is exemplary of how powerful site-specific theatre can be. A whirl-wind cacophony of haunting music and farcical folk-lore, this is life-affirming and immensely enjoyable stuff – certainly worth a trip to hell and back.

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