At Local Tavern, Scottish Troupe Blends Old And New
by Nicolás Medina Mora Pérez | Jun 22, 2012 2:37 pm
Posted to: Arts & Entertainment
“I’m the Scottish expert on hell!” exclaimed folk-ballad academic expert Prudencia Hart in her thick Edinburgh accent. “And whatever it is, it is not a bed and breakfast!”
It turns out that expertise isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.
To Jean-Paul Sartre, other people were hell. When the National Theatre of Scotland presented The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart at Wicked Wolf Tavern, a different vision emerged.
The witty, innovative play, which is on world tour and currently at the Temple Street tavern as a part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, raises questions about popular culture’s relationship with tradition. It do so through a mish-mash of rhyming couplets, soccer chants, meditations on the nature of evil, crass jokes, old Scottish ballads, and the music of Kylie Minouge.
By the end of the performance, the audience goes home wondering whether Lady Gaga’s songs constitute folk art or not—and if modern-day hell isn’t a bed and breakfast after all.
A Tragedy For The Devil
The play, the brainchild of playwright David Greig and director Wils Wilson, follows a young professor—Prudencia Hart, played exceedingly well by Madeleine Worrall, as she ventures into the Scottish countryside for an academic conference.
Prudencia is an uptight scholar of folk music who just finished a dissertation on the role of the devil in old Scottish ballads. When she arrives at the conference, she finds her colleagues more concerned with academic trends than with the beauty of ancient poems.
Frustrated with the “post-post-structuralists,” Prudencia tries to go home—but a snowstorm forces her to stay. A colleague who “gets actual grants for recording football chants and then analyzing them”—Colin Syme, played by David McKay—drags her to a pub with the promise of live folk music.
Instead of the ballads that Prudencia hoped for, however, the duo finds itself in the midst of a cocaine-driven karaoke pandemonium. The quaint Scottish peasants of Prudencia’s dissertation have been supplanted by a raucous quartet of Katy Perry fanatics.
Prudencia escapes to the local bed and breakfast, where a kind but slightly scary gentleman shows her his immense folk studies library. For a moment Prudencia thinks she is in heaven—except that the gentleman, played by Andy Clark, turns out to be the devil himself.
The young professor has ended up in a postmodern version of the ballads she studies. She is now condemned to spend eternity in a small-town bed and breakfast.
Prudencia languishes in the hotel for thousands of years—until she finally discovers her inner strength and, through a wily act of seduction, escapes the devil’s clutches. After she emerges from the space-time continuum, she stumbles into a drunken Syme instead of the knight in shinning armor she expected. To her surprise, she finds the motorcycle-riding bloke exceedingly charming.
Uptight Prudencia isn’t uptight anymore.
Thursday night’s performance made the audience think as much as it made it laugh. What happens to academic “folk studies” when the people of rural Scotland prefer commercial American pop to the songs of their ancestors? What does hell look like for modern day people—a pit of fire and brimstone, or a country hotel from which there is no exit?
The play didn’t offer easy answers. But it is clear that for Greig and company, Lady Gaga serves the same function for today’s listeners as the poems of Robert Burns did for those of the 18th century. Hence it was fitting that the action alternated between ballad-style third-person narration and modern-day dialogue, juxtaposing a serious form—metered rhyming couplets in the manner of Alexander Pope—with bawdy comedy:
“And Prudencia looked around the room / and saw bald men moaning in the gloom!”
The staging at faux-medieval Wicked Wolf also reflected the play’s central concern. Blurring the lines between hyper-intellectual theater and rowdy street performance, the actors transformed the entirety of the tavern’s back-room into a stage, dancing on the tables and using audience members as props. When the Katy Perry fans related the time when they all bedded a single “country boy,” for example, they kidnapped this reviewer roommate and performed an elaborate lap-dance on him.
The production replaced elaborate props with imagination. Instead of riding an actual car, Prudencia sat at the bar while one of the musicians waved his fiddle arch in front of her face—thus representing the wind-shield cleaners. As the narrator describes the dreadful snowstorm (which, “were this a ballad, would prefigure the undoing of the heroine”), the audience was asked to tear their napkins into little pieces and throw them into the air.
The play’s heavy use of music—the work of composer Alasdair Macrae—also wavered between the new and the traditional. Half of the songs were old ballads set to a live ensemble of fiddle, guitar, banjo, and harmonium—but the other half were radio hits sung in thick Scottish accents by a choir of drunken country people.
A Top-40 Scottish Ballad
The end of the play brought all those elements together. Prudencia and Syme return to the pub, where the Katy Perry fanatics demand that the young academic sing a song on the karaoke.
“What’a your song?” they ask in unison.
“You don’t know your song until you know whom you are singing it for,” replies Prudencia as she looks out the window, where the devil stands crying alone.
Soft guitar music begins to play. Prudencia then delivers a whispered version of Kylie Minouge’s “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head.” The song gains momentum until, at the moment of the first chorus, the original music explodes. A liberated Prudencia then dances around the bar like a full-fledged amateur pop-star.
At the end, the original music subsides, leaving the traditional folk ensemble playing the melody for a few bars.
The final punchline brings the point home with great strength. With that instrumentation, Minouge’s 2001 hit sounds remarkably like an old Scottish ballad.