You don’t have to be Scottish to appreciate the rich palate of flavours that The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart offers, though it certainly adds to the delight. The production is steeped in the lore and language of the Border Ballads—old narrative songs about battles, murders, cattle raids, dark passions, betrayals, and the occasional meeting with the devil—from the wild country straddling northern England and southern Scotland. Indeed, the piece takes the form of a ballad, made up of rhyming couplets.
But don’t imagine that the National Theatre of Scotland’s production is in any sense dour, stuffy, or hard to access. It sparkles with wit, comic irony, and contemporary references, the performance is at times rambunctious, and the staging puts the audience in the heart of the action.
The work emerged from a long collaboration between director Wils Wilson, writer David Greig, composer and performer Aly Macrae, and designer Georgia McGuinness, all determined to create a uniquely intimate theatrical experience. “Ideas of how we would use the space, performing in nontheatre venues, sitting the audience at tables where they can have a drink, and so on were all part of our thinking from the very beginning,” says Wilson, reached at her home in West Yorkshire. “We were keen to create a show which could happen in any place where there was a room to gather in, a pub or a community hall.
“We were interested in stripping away some of the assumptions and conventions of theatre,” she continues. “When the audience enters the room, there’s folk music playing, people are going to and from the bar, the performers are mingling with the audience in a relaxed and convivial way. All of that creates an atmosphere where people relate to the performers in a very different way, which is a big opportunity and a great joy to any theatre maker—allowing for a whole lot of new possibilities.”
The story follows the academic and nerdish Prudencia Hart, a 28-year-old folksong collector, who sets out in midwinter for a conference on the Border Ballads. During a snowstorm she gets trapped in a bar where an extraordinary session of songs and stories is taking place. Karaoke and hip-hop rub shoulders with ancient rhymes and fiddle-playing—and in due course the supernatural emerges and takes over.
“We did a lot of research as a group into the Border Ballads,” says Wilson, “memorably in the small town of Kelso, where we didn’t exactly meet the devil, but had a memorable weekend. We worked very organically, with the visual world, use of space, text, and music all feeding into one another. So by the time it came to rehearsal, we had a very clear understanding of what the story would be, and how we would tell it.”
The audience can expect to be participants, though Wilson won’t reveal in what ways. “The performers have got very good at judging the moment with the audience, so you’re in very safe hands. There’s a lot of fun to be had between audience and players. And in a fundamental way, we have no set, and no stage lighting, so we need the audience to involve their imaginations to create the drama with us—which, in our experience, people love to do.”
Will audiences be able to assist their imaginations with a wee dram during the performance? “Yes, indeed,” Wilson says. “It’s important to experience Scottish culture directly, don’t you think?”