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The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but when a playwright, a
theatre director and a folk song archivist walk into a bar, funny
things can happen. Given that the playwright is the ever prolific and
perennially inquisitive David Greig and the director is Wils Wilson,
who last worked with Greig on children’s play, Gobbo, you can see how
things might end up that way. Throw into the mix lecturer in Scottish
Studies Dr Valentina Bold, and the end result is the extravagantly
titled concoction, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, which sees
the National Theatre of Scotland go off-site for a lock-in in an
assortment of hostelries, hafs and other places you might fall in with
a bad crowd.

“The over-riding principle of Gobbo was to try and imagine doing a show
for children that you could take anywhere,” explains Greig, “where they
would feel completely at home in, and where you could transform things
into an amazing story full of adventure, and we had a laugh doing that.
Then we decided we wanted to do something again, and a few things had
clicked for me during Gobbo, which really changed my thinking about
telling a story. I really liked the way we told it with music, and with
the actors going around telling it with their instruments, so a banjo
could become a sword, and there was that sense that you were right in
with the audience. So we started to think what a show for grown-ups
would be if you used these techniques.”

This set Greig and Wilson off on a four year trail to discover Border
ballads, which in times past would be the sort of yarn you might hear
in pubs.

“We had a weekend in Kelso, and got people together to sing to us or to
tell us about the Borders,” Wilson recalls. “We didn’t really know what
we were looking for, but we just felt that there was something about
the ballad that was worth having. They’re all about love and betrayal
and the death of children, and are all very dramatic, so we just
thought we’d dig around until we found what we were looking for. We
went to a Folk night in Kelso, which wasn’t what we expected, then we
met Valentina Bold, who is an academic and, while not a song collector
per se, goes around houses in Newfoundland listening to people singing
songs.”

The morning after, Greig and Wilson sat around their B and B
recovering, and the story of a folk song collector who finds that her
life becomes a supernatural ballad arrived as a eureka moment. A story
was eventually concocted with the eponymous Prudencia Hart as its
heroine, which, combined with the sensibilities of a folk ballad and
their bar-room locale, made the show’s form just as important as its
content.

“Both of us had this very straightforward romantic idea that every
village in Scotland has got at least one pub,” Greig enthuses. “Most of
those pubs have function rooms at the very least, and we wanted to turn
up with five actors and slap up a poster saying ‘Show Here Tonight,’
and be amongst the audience. You can have your beer and the actors will
be standing on the table beside you. In some ways this sounds small,
but the story is epic.”

In this respect, while the idea of telling shaggy dog stories in a
boozer after dark might resemble Conor MacPherson’s hit play, The Weir,
in its delivery, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart echoes the
sentiments of ‘a good night out’ coined by the late 7:84 founder and
theatrical giant John McGrath. Greig and Wilson are nevertheless
careful not to lump their creation in with the recent recessionary wave
of boutique theatre.

“If we could squeeze more people into the pubs, we would,” says Greig.
“The play is set in a pub in the way The Weir is, but if I was doing
that play, I’d have it done in a pub the same as what we’re doing.”

“We just want to do it in a function room where a wedding party might
take place,” Wilson stresses.

“We want the audience to lose themselves,” says Greig. “It’s quite hard
losing yourself in a theatre when you’ve got a stage in front of you.
But in a pub with the juke-box lights flashing and all this other noise
going on, it’s easier for the audience to become part of it. Boutique
theatre played to a handful of people is something terribly fragile and
which can be very beautiful, but we’re trying to create something
robust enough to be able to go anywhere.”

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart opens in Glasgow at the Tron
Theatre’s Victoria Bar on February 9th-10th, then tours.
www.nationaltheatrescotland.com

The Herald, February 8th 2011

ends

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