High in the McKittrick Hotel on Manhattan’s far West Side, a new, more contained wonderland has taken root a few floors up from the kinetic, watch-where-you’re-stepping drama of Sleep No More where one mistaken move can have you felled by a witch in a hurry.
The audience for The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart—written by David Greig and directed by Wils Wilson for the National Theatre of Scotland—sits in a room full of bar tables.
We become the pub where Prudencia Hart finds herself one wintry night in the Scottish Borders. Indeed, you can imagine, thick snow all around, alighting upon a pub and hearing a story as wild and ridiculous as the one that unfolds around Prudencia in 2010.
As they tell and sing the story, the five brilliant performers—Annie Grace, Melody Grove, Peter Hannah, Paul McCole, and Alasdair MacRae—rove around the tables, occasionally draping themselves over members of the public, standing on chairs, sidling against the bar itself, and using the whole span of the room to convey the pub, a dry academic conference, or dark, snowy fields.
The shy shouldn’t worry too much: The level of public participation isn’t too extreme. The first thing we are asked to do—by the handsome Hannah, dressed in waistcoat and tight white trousers—is to tear up some napkins to make flakes of snow, ready to be discharged into the air at the right moment.
And then by ballad and through meticulously crafted, witty couplets, the performers guide us into the story of how Prudencia, an academic attending a conference in Kelso that only academics could craft or bear—named “Border Ballads: Neither Border Nor Ballad?”—ended up in the clutches of the Devil.
And so a ballad is told by ballad, in the process deconstructing the whimsies and absurdities of the ballad.
As Prudencia drives through the snow, she thinks: “This is exactly the sort of snow that if it were in a border ballad would poetically presage some kind of doom for an innocent heroine or an encounter on the moor with a sprite or villain or the losing of the heroine’s selfhood in the great white emptiness of the night.”
The show is many things: satirical, absurd, a literary parlor game, a crazy surf through folkloric history, and a wild and celebratory slice of storytelling-as-art. From Scottish-tinged humor to a mockery of academic pursuits, familiar football chants, and a deification of Kylie Minogue, it raised the heartiest belly laughs from tables containing Scots or Brits or both (especially those audience members who studied English and Scots literature at Aberdeen University—no names).
If American visitors seemed a little more baffled at certain moments, they seemed happily so. Your capacity to embrace this show will depend on your capacity for absurdity, wild silliness, and literary in-jokes. Free shots of whiskey may help.
At the conference we see an academic named Siolaigha (“That Celtic name which so endeared her/Was just a poncy way of spelling Sheila”), and barely hidden frustrations (“Putting ‘Scottish’ in air quote/Made Prudencia want to punch him in the throat”).
It is significant, given what happens to her later, that Prudencia is asked about the ballad of Tam Lin, as the struggle and fate of the heroine in that 16th century folktale will closely mirror Prudencia’s kidnap and attempted escape from the Devil, who in modern day too can take on many forms.
The able, endlessly versatile guiding musical hands belong to the smooth voices and able folk-meets-pop instrumentation of Grace and Macrae. Prudencia is beautifully played by Grove, her bearing familiarly academic until her circumstances become more desperate, and she finds herself toying with an attraction to the Devil.
McCole is the show’s unlikely hero. His Dr. Colin Syme is a brash, karaoke-loving, motorbike-riding academic—both hopelessly vain (“Dr. Colin Syme blokeish—obsessed with his kit/He’d eat himself if he was a biscuit”), and hopelessly devoted to Pru, even if he is dismissively rude at the start about her being a fuddy-duddy.
Prudencia’s phone, Colin groans on learning, is set to a “middle class” vibrate. Still, they get wasted at the pub, which Prudencia recalls of the drunken hi and low jinx (and James Blunt song-singing), “was like something out of Breughel.”
The perils of physical live performance meant poor McCole was also abused even beyond what he was expecting the night our audience saw it (bravely grimacing and swearing as a naked flame came too close to his palm), the rest of the company just about managing to splutter their lines through laughter.
The, yes, devilishly sexy Hannah plays the Devil, at first appearing as a safe haven for the snowbound Prudencia, and then—once in his clutches—a malevolent jailer, whose version of hell spans millennia, and who scoops up Prudencia on the night of the Devil’s Ceilidh, a “dance or party hosted by Satan and reputed to be held at exactly midnight on the winter solstice,” we learn. But maybe he and the academic are good for each other too.
The show’s many jokes flow from the delivery of the couplets. One character may tell a portion of story, for another to interject with a waspish payoff. “And here was an important chance to tell/Her colleagues her new theory of hell’s/Inherent interiority in folk discourses/And she supposed, a lunch with at least three courses.”
The ingenuity of the rhymes is delicious: “With that he took out his fancy mobile phone/And Prudencia thought—I might have known/He’s always got the most up to date crap/A Bed and Breakfast finding app!”
And, my favorite: “Oh Colin beneath your bluster and bravado/Beats the heart of a bewildered wee student/Sitting at a window one hot day in summer/Dreaming of the girl he saw at the Proclaimers gig.”
The shots of whiskey (and sandwiches handed out during the interval) definitely helped our already-smitten audience believe in the show’s time-traveling, or imagine the wasteland of a Costco car-park freshly endowed with a perversely gorgeous magic.
The sheer energy of the performers is all-enveloping. Prudencia’s valiant effort to escape the Devil’s clutches looks as absurd as you might expect, but still we heartily sang and encouraged her to do just that. It takes great skill to be this silly, and to do it with such heart and relish. Somewhere Robert Burns is chuckling, and tearing a napkin into a hundred fluttery pieces.
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is at the McKittrick Hotel, 530 West 27th Street, New York, until Jan. 29. Book tickets here.