The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart


Radisson Live Lounge, Galway

PRUDENCIA HART, like many an academic before her, is about to become completely absorbed in her work. Sweetly out of place in the world – her discipline is in Scottish folk ballads – and defiantly out of step with the dry dissections and flippant pop references of contemporary academia, Madeleine Worrall’s fetchingly prim Prudencia reaches breaking point during a conference mischievously entitled The Borders Ballad: Neither Border nor Ballad, finding herself further trapped in the snowbound Scottish Borders town of Kelso.

Before the evening is out she will be subsumed whole into the supernatural weave, earthy wit and compelling verses of her subject. The chief delight of David Greig’s ingeniously entertaining play for the National Theatre of Scotland is that we will too.

The Radisson Live Lounge, a natural fit for a debs reception but less promising as a performance venue, creates little hindrance for director Wils Wilson’s spry and inventive production. Five performer-musicians swirl around the audience, putting us to work shredding cocktail napkins for a later artificial-snow effect and finding increasingly clever ways to involve us in their stagecraft.

Here a car may be conjured up from a handful of props and a cluster of bodies. It’s a rough-hewn but winning gesture, one that makes the audience a party to the show’s creation and complements Greig’s impishly involving text, written almost entirely in rhyming couplets. Augmented with live music, beautifully served by Andy Clark and Annie Grace, it lends the verve and conspiratorial fun of an after-hours session.

Greig has an arch way with a rhyme, finding unexpected chimes and a natural flow, guiding Prudencia towards a run-in with the devil (David McKay). If the pace begins to sag, following the whoosh of its beginning and a bar-room bacchanalia of man-eating karaoke queens, that’s partly the point. Prudencia’s vision of eternity lies somewhere between an infinite library and a rainy Asda car park – between heaven and hell.

With a similar blend of barbs and affection, Greig makes Prudencia the protagonist of her own folk tale, where her laddish academic rival, Colin Syme (a cheering Andy Clarke) is co-opted in her rescue.

But the production’s wittiest conceit is also its sharpest insight. Everything is eligible for inclusion within a folk tale, whether karaoke or audience participation, and the historical form is given room to grow. In the musicality of NTS’s performance and the bright good humour of the cast, even a Kylie song seems stirring and eternal, another ballad of the people. Until July 22nd.

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