Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 10 February 2011, and touring
AS the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) celebrates its fifth anniversary, the legacy of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil seems ever more pertinent. What John McGrath’s 7:84 (Scotland) did in 1973 was to marry the ceilidh, a cultural form indigenous to Scotland, with theatrical storytelling and a hefty dose of politics. Crucially, the company took the show to the people, performing in church halls and community centres throughout the Highlands and islands.
Fast forward nearly 40 years and we find the NTS, a self-styled theatre without walls, asking similar questions to McGrath. This National Theatre of Scotland makes no assumptions about what constitutes a nation, what constitutes theatre or what constitutes Scotland. All possibilities are up for grabs, which is how, after shows such as Duncan McLean’s Long Gone Lonesome (a true-life story performed as a country and western gig), Half Life (an investigation of Mid Argyll’s archaeological past performed as a countryside walk) and Home Shetland (a tale of leaving and departure performed as if on an actual journey on the Hjatland ferry), we find ourselves enjoying The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart not in the Tron Theatre but its adjoining bar.
Created by playwright David Greig and director Wils Wilson (who was also responsible for Home Shetland), it is an exuberant piece of storytelling theatre that takes place, lock-in style, in every corner of the room, the actors doubling as an invigorating gypsy folk band whenever the mood takes them. It is sure to fit just as snugly into Ullapool’s Ceilidh Place as part of its appropriately eccentric tour of Scotland’s hostelries.
The point of all this is not simply to break down the fourth wall (and, frankly, every other wall too). Rather, it is to find a setting to suit Greig’s modern-day reworking of a Border ballad. This is a story set, for the most part, in a Kelso pub where a well-meaning but emotionally repressed academic, Prudencia Hart, gets stranded on the longest – and snowiest – night of the year. A collector of folk songs, she is a social anthropologist, at once fascinated by and distant from the object of her study. In a tale that goes from ironic send-up to erotic horror, she finds herself enmeshed in her very own Border ballad and must escape the clutches of the devil himself before she can reach a state of emotional fulfilment.
Greig takes a have-your-cake-and-eat-it approach, one minute making fun of anachronistic tradition, the next drawing us in to a supernatural tale which is every bit the Border ballad. With its merry rhyming scheme, lively music and ad-hoc use of props (from paper napkin snow showers to a bout of peanut throwing), it is a sprawling, rough-edged show that delights in its own informality. If this is what a theatre without walls feels like, here’s to the next five years. (Pic: Drew Farrell)
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is at the Ceilidh Place, Ullapool, on 25-26 February 2011.
© Mark Fisher 2011
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