Marry Woodward at the Festivals!

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, Playfair Library (venue 311) Review:

“impressively multi-talented cast”

***** (5 stars)

Yet again this hugely enjoyable  show was greeted with a standing ovation – not simply to salute a magnificent rendition of an engagingly complex and imaginative script presented by an impressively multi-talented cast, but also to acknowledge the joy of once more being in person at a Fringe show – and one in which the production itself surrounds and embraces the audience, drawing us into the action and encouraging us to participate whole-heartedly and with gusto after living far too long in silent isolation. 

Prudencia Hart is an academic with a particular interest in the Scottish Border Ballads – long narrative poems generally sung a capella and telling of heroic deeds, epic rides, comic situations, or supernatural involvement in the affairs of men.  She passionately believes that the ballads reflect deep human truths: academia tends to relegate them to dusty library shelves, preferring to concentrate on more contemporary expressions of culture.  Her particular bête noire is Colin Syme, whose field of study includes football chants…

It is late December, and Prudencia is reluctantly driving to a conference in Kelso where she will once again try to uphold her convictions against the scorn and pomposity of her fellow academics, including the irritatingly laddish Colin.  Snow is falling as she drives; during the conference it thickens to the point where, on emerging into the dark evening, she finds her car completely covered in snow.  Colin’s motorbike is similarly buried: he proposes that they find overnight accommodation.  She – reluctantly – agrees, but is appalled to learn that there is only one room available, which they will have to share.

Snow is still falling when they enter a pub in search of food.  To Colin’s horror, it’s folk night, which Prudencia eagerly defends, saying that it’s at occasions like this that she has collected previously unrecorded material.  The mind-numbingly boring evening is plodding on when locals pour in for “beer, only a pound a pint”: the music becomes increasingly wild and raucous, until Prudencia is exposed as the only person who hasn’t yet contributed to it.  Urged to sing, she simply cannot, and rushes out into the silent, snow-bound darkness; it is midnight at the winter solstice, and the devil’s ceilidh lies in wait for her Undoing …

Undoing: not necessarily the ravishing of a young maiden, though this is the plot line of many ballads.  The word can also mean unloosening of knots and bindings, and there’s plenty of this in store for Prudencia Hart.  I don’t want to reveal the plot’s twists and turns, the or its heart-wrenching conclusion: suffice it to say that between them Ewan Black, Charlene Boyd, Alasdair Macrae, Natali McCleary and Gavin Jon Wright tell a tale that rivals many a Border ballad with its heroic deeds, epic rides, comic moments, and supernatural goings-on.  

I’ve seen site-specific Prudencia in a variety of settings: the Playfair Library in New College might have been built simply to stage this show.  Much of the show’s action takes place in a library [and what a library!]: the Playfair, with its high arched ceiling and seemingly endless locked cabinets of arcane volumes, is perfect, both visually and acoustically.  Our cast are not just talented actors, but accomplished musicians, riveting singers, and skilled physical movement artists.  Stark haunting harmonies are added to simple folk melodies, weel-kennt tunes are given rousingly different treatment, and the (seemingly) most banal of pop tunes are used with stunning effect.  We meet, among others, accurately observed, self-congratulatory academics; the extraordinary Kelso Karaoke Korbies; and a mysterious young woman in white who sings an unearthly song.  And the words!  So much wonderfully [and tortuously] rhymed verse, with an initially unnoticed but increasingly significant excursion into prose…

Hell is not necessarily a place, but a state of being, a yearning for something unattainable, clearly visible but out of reach for all eternity, without the blessing of sleep’s brief respite from consciousness.  Prudencia Hart’s unbinding is achieved at great personal cost, but at the same time her passionate defence of the Border ballads is vindicated: it is through their poetry and the truths they contain that she is able to escape her imprisonment with the help of her most unlikely knight – the one and only Colin Syme.

If you’ve never seen The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart before, hurry up and book a ticket!  If, like me, you’ve already seen it, don’t miss this opportunity to enjoy seeing it again.  I shall go and see it whenever and wherever I can, and give thanks to David Greig for having written it.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart runs for the duration of the festival, for tickets go to:


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