David Greig’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is as rich, dark, complex and spicy as a dram of single malt whisky. The production takes place in a pub-like setting – indeed, sometimes it takes place on the table-tops – and despite the rather harsh strip-lighting of Bristol’s Trinity Centre, the audience are made to feel part of the performance.
As you enter the space the five cast members are already playing folksy music in the background – a bagpipe, a flute, percussion and so forth. The others on my table had been instructed to tear up paper napkins into little bits, which feels like something you might do in a pub anyway, while sipping your whisky and chewing the fat. Two scenes in and the play’s protagonist, Prudencia, finds herself in a deep blizzard, and everyone is throwing their piles of torn tissue into the air to create a fantastical snowstorm, while the knoll of gently struck crystal glass rings through the hall.
Apart from strategically placed items of clothing (to aid multiple character changes) and a collection of musical instruments, there are very few props in Wils Wilson’s production. The play itself provides the colour and detail of the piece: it is laden with poems and jokes and songs, with ballads and limericks, riddles and puzzles. It’s a good five minutes into the production when I realise that the cast are speaking in rhyme; a large portion of Grieg’s play is written in verse, though prose is also deployed in some later sections.
Prudencia Hart is a collector of ballads, an older-than-her-years academic who loves folk songs for their beauty, unlike her contemporaries at the Kelso conference (‘Border Ballads, semi-colon; Neither Border, comma, Nor Ballad…’), who demonstrate little affection for the form and label their papers ‘discourses on female sexuality’ or ‘twitter and Lady Gaga.’
The narrative takes the form of a journey. After the conference, Prudencia finds herself in what she believes is a folk pub only to find it’s actually a seedy late-night bar; she then finds herself on a desolate housing estate at midnight on midwinter’s eve, and finally she ends up a strange B&B, the kind where you check in not for a night or two but for several millennia. The pace of the production changes in these later scenes; the snappy, raucous atmosphere is swapped for something more lingering and unsettling. In these scenes the audience is on the ‘outside’ whereas previously they had been very much a part of things; they’re relegated back to being spectators, kept at arm’s length, instead of participants, a part of the company. Prudent Prudencia (beautifully played – and sung – by Madeleine Worrall) has become the stuff of folklore, the subject of her own ballad, and the switch from rhyming to more conventional dialogue only intensifies this.
This dark, strange middle section is but an interlude. The last scenes see a return to the first half’s lightness, quick wit and intimacy. There’s a mass football chant for Prudencia’s saviour, Colin Syme, and a joyous karaoke epilogue that sees the whole audience swept up and along, aglow under the strip-lights.