BWW Review: National Theatre of Scotland's THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART An Immersive Highbrow Delight
While the McKittrick Hotel's ongoing attraction SLEEP NO MORE requires audience members to seek out its immersive entertainment as they venture from floor to floor and room to room, the venue's new co-tenant, the National Theatre of Scotland's delightful production of David Greig's cleverly done THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART, confines the action to The Heath, a cozy pub where patrons can take advantage of a cash bar while the actors handle the trailblazing.
The congenial atmosphere set up by director Wils Wilson replicates a sessions night you might encounter at a local tavern, with the company of five jamming on folk tunes at a side table before the festivities properly begin. Though not a musical in the traditional sense, there's a great deal of melody throughout the night.
Without a set playing area, the quintet mingles among patrons seated at tables and chairs as they tell the story of Prudencia Hart (plucky Melody Grove), a scholar in the subject of folk ballads and an expert on how they reveal the topography of hell. Fittingly, Greig's text is written in verse and part of the charm is that the story takes place in 2010, with contemporary references standing out comically within the classic poetic form.
We begin with Prudencia driving to the town of Kelso, were she's to speak at a conference titled "Border Ballads: Neither Border Nor Ballad?" Previously, cast members have asked their guests to tear up one or two of their white cocktail napkins, and as the title character "motors" through the space, they're to toss the pieces at her to simulate the snowy ride. (This, along with some call and response and group singing, constitutes the bulk of the audience participation.)
Sadly, her views are seen as outdated and her colleagues rave over the presentation of Dr. Colin Syme (Paul McCole), who professes that "stories from reality TV / And singers of karaoke / And street landscapes as described by rappers / And the battle narratives of happy slappers" are as worthy of folkloric acclaim as the ballads of Sir Walter Scott, who he says, "collected Scots poems, laments and sagas / To create a 'Scottish' identity 'every bit as artificial as Lady Gaga's'."
"Putting 'Scottish' in air quote," we're told, "Made Prudencia want to punch him in the throat."
Stuck in town overnight because of the weather, she drowns her disappointment a bit at a local pub, has a ghostly encounter with a haunting balladeer (Annie Grace) and is then tracked down by a fellow from the B&B where she's staying. However, it soon becomes apparent that Nick (Peter Hannah), who leaves no footprints in the snow and, horrors, does not speak in verse, has a special interest in the topography of Prudencia Hart.
The company is completed by music director Alasdair Macrae, who, aside from his acting assignments, humorously provides sound effects and dramatic underscoring.
While the merry antics and sexy melodramatics of THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART can certainly be enjoyed by all, those with an intimate knowledge of Scottish literature and culture will certainly get an extra charge out of the evening.
It may not come from the Highlands, but it's surprisingly highbrow.