The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart: A Review
West Kilbride Village Hall, Tuesday 1st May 2012
Take five energetic, multi-tasking actor-musicians, a pawky script and a sell-out audience, and you have a recipe for success. The handful of players from the National Theatre of Scotland merited their enthusiastic response and made more of David Greig’s uneven script than perhaps it deserved. Wils Wilson’s direction showed great ingenuity in conjuring car and motorbike rides, whilst scenes of Hell, housing estates and the blizzards of 2010 were similarly spirited from minimal items of furniture, costume and shredded napkins.
Prudencia Hart is a scholar of the ‘old school’. Her study of folklore centres on the objective interpretation of ballads and their associated contemporary records. Her thesis on ‘The Topography of Hell’ describes the features of the underworld as depicted in the texts of traditional songs. Such diligent and detached scholarship has become deeply unfashionable amongst a trendy academic community besotted with subjective experiences and bodily engagements. That is why we now have a generation of journalists writing in the first person, intent on drawing the reader into their corporeal encounter with situations, rather than simply reporting the news.
Prudencia finds herself in Kelso, as the lone representative of ‘old school’ historical studies at a conference on the Border Ballad. Whilst her fellow speakers spout their post-structuralist notions to appreciative delegates, Prudencia is embarrassed into an early departure. That is, she would have departed if deepening snowdrifts hadn’t forced her to seek refuge with the others in a local hostelry. Her nemesis, Colin the darling of post-structuralism, does his unsuccessful best to loosen the bodice strings that repress her physically and intellectually. All this is far more entertaining than it sounds, and Greig’s ingenious rhyming couplets energise a situation with high comic potential.
It was, you might say, a play of two halves. If the first half was crisp and comprehensible, the second was more allegorical and baffling. It was as if the manager had berated his team at half time for playing entertaining and skilful football, but failing to test the opposing goalie.
Prudencia, wandering in the snow to find a B-and-B, starts to enter into a Border Ballad. She is the weary traveller, encountering a haunting songstress, led by a mysterious stranger, only to be lured into the underworld. Her detached, analytical understanding of the topography of Hell is nothing like the real thing. Subjective engagement with the place makes it seem more like her idea of paradise; Old Nick himself may be a little creepy, but is hardly a vile tormenter. Glimpses of the outside world – an Asda store that apparently lasts longer than a medieval cathedral and a lock-in party at a Kelso pub – seem far more Faustian. In the end, her escape depends on persuading the devil that he too must experience embodiment and thus, ultimately, weariness and sleep. Prudencia’s final rescue by the valiant Colin, stripped to his Calvin Klein’s, is once more hugely entertaining and inventive.
By the end, one is left wondering where Greig’s sympathies lie. Is he revelling at the old Prudencia being de-bunked and loosening her laces? Or is he cocking a snook at modern academia? Perhaps it takes a lay audience to see that trendy academic ‘emperors’ are clad only in their pretentious underwear, and not actually wearing fine new clothes? Perhaps the Old Masters were not wrong, after all.