Scotland’s history is so rich that it’s not surprising that battles are still being waged among academics. At the center of debate are Scottish ballads, which are poetic accounts of historic events dating as far back as the 13th Century. Should today’s Scots continue to steep themselves in stuffy traditional interpretations, or should they have an unmoored, modern approach to reading the ballads?
Bored yet? You won’t be. The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, a pub and musical theater experience by the National Theatre of Scotland at the McKittrick Hotel, ensures that there isn’t a dull moment—not even if the subject goes in one American ear and out the other. After successful stagings throughout the U.K., Prudencia is enjoying a run in the rustic music venue The Heath, which is located next door to Sleep No More. Viewers can enjoy whiskey, wine, and light sandwiches while the actors sing and climb all around them, telling a delightful, if at times rocky story in rhyming couplet dialogue. (It also feels pretty good to skirt the massive Sleep No More line in favor of the smaller play.)
Old and new are juxtaposed throughout the show, which follows Prudencia Hart, a stone-cold traditional academic and fierce ballad-phile who lives, unfortunately, in 2010. Her peer, the douchey Kylie Minogue-obsessed Colin Syme, mocks Prudencia for her “librarian” ways. Her resistance to modern life—which includes a handful of funny, overzealous karaoke enthusiasts—leads Prudencia to storm out of a pub into a dangerously snowy night. There, she meets her foretold “strange undoing,” which is strange indeed, consisting of a mysterious apparition and Prudencia’s terrifying captivity in a hell of her own making.
The first act blends together extremely successfully, drifting from lilting reels to sharp comedy, from extreme creepiness to a world unbound by reality or time, making the play worthy of neighboring Sleep No More (although Prudencia is much funnier). Brilliant classic folk accompaniment is performed live by the cast, adding to the raucous pub atmosphere. Actors Jessica Hardwick, Peter Hannah, and Owen Whitelaw play the main characters admirably, while actor/musicians Muireann Bird and George Drennan swirl in and out of the plot between songs. The ensemble demonstrates high chemistry and talent as they slip into various roles and crop up all over the bar, demanding light, playful immersion from the audience.
As Prudencia finds her way through the pitch black night, there are no limits to what will become of her. Crafty, minimal staging leaves everything to the imagination. You’re left a bit afraid, titillated, and chomping at the bit for act two.
Sadly, it doesn’t quite pay off. The writing takes an abrupt descent into total camp with a sprinkle of laziness. Seemingly crucial subplots all but disappear. Dated, bad pop music makes an unwelcome intrusion.
The worst infraction however, is that Prudencia’s admirable strength gives way to silliness and an erosion of her interests that would make feminists cringe. Yes, it’s clear that viewers aren’t supposed to take any of it too seriously—but “stop taking it too seriously!” is exactly what feminists, and what Prudencia, have been hearing for years from lesser peers. One has to wonder what the overall message of the play is intended to be. Is Prudencia emerging from her brush with the devil to forge her own path, or to be what everyone expects of her? Or, did we just go along for a very intense ride only for the play to wrap up as quickly and zanily as possible? Either way, it felt like a minor betrayal.
All that said, it is admittedly pretty easy to suspend your suspicions and give in. Viewers are dealt such an incredibly strong first act —not to mention a gut-load of whiskey—it’s hard not to have fun until the bitter end.
Starring: Peter Hannah, Jessica Hardwick, Muireann Bird, George Drennan, Owen Whitelaw
Written by: David Greig
Directed by: Wils Wilson
Music: Alasdair Macrae
Through: April 23 at The McKittrick Hotel.