So, Kylie Minogue, the Devil, and a Scholar walk into a pub. (Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.) Although this sounds like a set-up to a bad joke, it’s part of the plot line of the fantastic play The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. This production, a standout of the National Theatre of Scotland, is a raucous, entertaining,hilarious, and sweet play–and all in verse, too.*
The cast is small and diversely talented, with Melody Grove as the only stationary character (the titular Prudencia Hart), and supported by actors, singers, and musicians: Andy Clark, David McKay, Annie Grace (with a hauntingly plaintive voice), and musical director, the mustachioed Alasdair MacRae. The cast is truly an ensemble and the chemistry between the actors is strong, especially in the bizarre love triangle played by Grove, McKay, and Clark.
The sentimental young scholar of Scottish Border Ballads, the titular Prudencia Hart, is heartbroken when her work on the topology of Hell in such ballads is considered trite and old-fashioned, especially by her fiercest rival and a pop culture expert, Collin. Melody Grove, bright-eyed and with a soft voice, as Prudencia beautifully captures the quiet desperation of a young academic, while Andy Clark’s Collin is all arrogance, cool gadgets, tweeting ballad verses, and comparing the worth of centuries-old lyrics to the most banal of today’s forms of communication: the Facebook status update. The opening exchanges between the scholars is dead-on and for me (a young scholar who also studies older literature), a bit painful, too.
After a snowstorm (provided by the audience via torn up napkins) means that she cannot escape the town of Kelso, she resigns herself to a local pub to hear some folk music. The scene quickly changes to a karaoke club, with a bunch of feathered-masks Corbies (crows–but are they bawdy bachelorettes or witches on the sabbath?) trying to get the very prim and proper Prudencia up and singing. She takes her chances in the snow and ends up at a bed and breakfast, which is also the portal to Hell.
David McKay as Satan is sly and persuasive, almost sincere, and his unimposing figure makes his seduction of Prudencia (a very Faustian exchange where he promises her all the books she would ever wish to read!) all the more believable. As Prudencia spends millennia in Hell, the pace of the play slows and lags for a bit, until she finally finds her freedom by applying the folktale motifs of her ballads–tricking the devil into speaking in verse instead of his preferred prose (one of the funniest scenes of the play), loosening up a bit (which means stripping down to her slip), seducing him, and finding both her true love and her personal ballad (Kylie Minogue’s “I Just Can’t Get You Outta My Head”) in the process.
The play is performed in non-theatrical spaces, and I must admit, that I adore site-specific theatre. Since most of the action takes place in a pub (other locations include the University conference center, a car in a snow storm, and a quaint B & B/Hell), the play is usually performed in a pub. It is a bit unfortunate that when I saw the play, it was at the CD 101 (102.5) Big Room, which, at best, looked like a second-rate fire hall/wedding hall combo and at worst, was too brightly lit for most of the play. This was made worse by the fact the CD 101 office is conveniently located in a part of town called The Brewery District, and it hosts a number of more fitting venues.
The play is not only site-specific, but immersive and interactive as well. This never feels like a children’s puppet show, but adds to the overall exuberance of the production. Theatre-goers create the snowstorm by tearing up paper napkins and tossing them into the air, as Prudencia attempts to drive her car (riding on the shoulders of another actor, with others still as wipers and headlights–creatively and effectively achieved). Some poor soul was molested by the Corbies as they recount one of their drunken escapades (a good sport, but he did turn bright red!). At points, the audience was plunged into complete darkness (as Prudencia leaves the pub), strobe lights (during an orgy scene), and during the intimate scenes of Prudencia and Satan, a tight circle was created for the duration of her stay in the netherworld. Actors moved freely through the audience, and cheese sandwiches were served at intermission.
The verse never feels strained, or when it does, it adds to the overall humor of turning an academic conference (with its stuffy thoughts and drier academese) into a ballad. There are musical interludes and traditional songs (usually Macrae and Grace take the lead on these) within the larger narrative arc of Prudencia’s story, which becomes its own modern twist on the epic descent into and emergence from Hell archetypal poem.
It’s a fun play, but also surprisingly touching and sweet. I left the venue that night with napkin-cum-snow in my hair and a bit of the ballad in my heart. It might have been the beer served at the show, but I think it was the joyful music, the redemptive story of failure, loss, and death overcome by perseverance and love, and maybe even having a cheese sandwich and a “Devil’s Brew” Coaster as a takeaway.
This play was a sell-out success at the 2011 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and enjoyed a popular Scottish tour. It was nominated for several 2011 Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS) Awards: Best Ensemble, Alasdair Macrae for Best Music and Sound, David Greig for Best New Play, and Best Production.
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart still has some North American dates before heading out to Australia:
Corner Brewery, Michigan 01/08-01/13/2013
Fusebox Festival, University of Texas at Austin 01/16-01/19/2013
Mondavi Center, California 01/23-01/26/2013
The WISE Hall, Vancouver 01/29-02/02/2013
* The Devil prefers prose.