Edinburgh Fringe 2011
An afternoon of anarchic fun, inventive storytelling, fine tunes and unrestrained hilarity. Prudencia Hart, a collector of Scottish ballads, goes to an academic conference, is stranded overnight in a snowbound Borders town and unwittingly chances on that elusive gap between the worlds: let the fun begin.
“We’re in a pub or a bar, a ceilidh place, …anywhere that people are gathered and warm and have enough to drink.” Actually, today we’re in the fine Scottish Baronial surroundings of the Ghilli Dhu bar in central Edinburgh and in for a five star treat.
On a cold, snowy day, Prudencia Hart, uptight Scottish academic and collector of Border ballads, sets out for an academic conference, ‘Borders Ballads neither Border nor Ballad’ in the Borders town of Kelso. She’s an old-fashioned gal, rather prim and fiercely protective of her beloved Border ballads which have been taken over by academic post-post structuralism. Her conference fellows are unabashedly pretentious in an academic sort of way, or, in the case of Colin Syme, determinedly ‘street’, appropriating football chants as the new folk vernacular.
As she leaves the conference and snow begins to fall, it becomes apparent that she and her fellow conference goers are going nowhere. Prudencia’s idea of hell, a night with Colin Syme, begins to materialise. Holed up in a pub at a session, full not of good craic but of tuneless wittering, Prudencia decides to leave and find the bed and breakfast . And that’s where, just as Prudencia thinks things can’t get any worse, her bed and breakfast turns out to be more hellish than most. She needs a white knight on a trusty steed to come to her rescue: where is Colin Syme when she needs him?
Part ceilidh, part lock-in, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart takes the Border Ballad as its form, using the oral storytelling tradition, the verse and the music to good effect. The story is a remade Tam a’ Shanter for our times, examining Scotland’s 21st century fascination with its own identity. It takes the mickey out of the Scottish nostalgia which can mistake the chocolate box for the historical,but sends up equally the tartan academia that takes itself too seriously.
There are some beautiful visual moments. White flakes of snow fall through the hall: tissue paper distributed by the cast and thrown by the audience. A white-clad Madonna figure emerges from the darkness and birls round, vodka bottle in hand.
And then there’s the music: everything from traditional Scottish music to karoake, from football chant to a Borders ballad rendition of a Kylie song that starts to rock. The music, old and new, provides the perfect context for the exploration of Scottish identity, and is well performed by the cast. they say the Devil has the best tunes, don’t they?
This is theatre that illustrates how storytelling can work anywhere, how it needs few props and how whole worlds can be conjured up from the meeting of theatre and audience. The action is fast and furious and pops us all around us, tables are commandeered, the bar , takes its rightful place as a bar and the cast use the whole room as their stage. Wils Wilson’s direction is a marvel pulling all the elements of this multi-faceted show together into a wonderfully staged production. The ensemble cast are absolutely sensational: a multi-talented bunch who excel both as actors and as musicians
Above all, the play’s the thing: a beautifully wrought creation and scintillating celebration of words, words, words. This is a play, by one of the UK’s leading and most prolific playwrights that finds him at the top of his game. Written in rhyming couplets but in a swashbuckling free verse style, Greig’s rhyming puts strange juxtapositions next to each other bringing together the nostalgic with the modern, the academic with the street. She asks for a ‘bitter’, turns round and he’s on ‘Twitter’. ‘Up-to-date crap’ rhymes with ‘bed and breakfast finding app’. Time and time again there are delighted laughs from the audience as the language thrills.
All this theatrical munificence – and sandwiches and whiskey too – Scottish theatre, ye cannae beat it!