Jean-Paul Sartre said that Hell was other people. He didn’t know the half of it. For what Hell could be fresher than a pub full of academics with the teensy-weensy specialty of Scottish border ballads, locked in on a snowy evening?
Seven hundred years ago, some rough and soulful shepherd wrote a rhyming story about losing his flock to wolves; or his brother to the incessant wars; or the love of his life to some illness – and look, here’s a seminar in “Border Ballads: Neither Border nor Ballad?”! Here’s Professor Macintosh (David McKay) from the University of Aberdeen with his theory of negative reading! Here’s Siolagha Smith (Annie Grace), the incomprehensible post-post-structuralist, who sees in both borders and ballads the oppression of women by men! And worst of all, here’s Colin Syme (Andy Clark), arch-enemy of all that is sacred, who finds the whole study of ballads to be meaningless bourgeois nonsense.
And so our heroine Prudencia Hart (Melody Grove) drives through the worst snow in a century to attend a conference with them at a pub in the border town of Kelso in the hopes of landing a free three-course lunch, and handing out her business cards. She is, after all, a recent grad – her thesis having been on The Topography of Hell. And you are at the pub too, though your grad school days are long past, and your interest in Scottish border ballads minimal. You are in the brick-walled Bier Baron Tavern, on 22nd Street, free smooth lovely single-malt at your lips (bring your I.D.), for a single purpose: to watch Prudencia Hart go to Hell.
She does so in rhyming couplets, given out freely and conversationally throughout the first Act. Pru the ballad scholar has stumbled into her own ballad: “And even if dull Colin wronged her/What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” In every ballad, the victim of a seducing Satan has a signature sin, and Prudencia’s is pride. She sneers at the other drivers on the snowy highway, who were less – um – prudent than she (“Those idiots…Unready of forecast, uncollected/Of thought – not like Prudencia./Prudencia smiled./She had put snow tires on her ka.”).
She radiates contempt for her fellow academics. She is horrified at what the Pub considers folk music. (They do “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Bridge over Troubled Waters”, badly). She declines the invitation of a wraithlike woman to shelter her from the storm. And when she is surrounded by drunken, half-naked, cocaine-fueled revelers who have just finished terrorizing a lad from the Country Clothing Store, Satan (McKay) starts looking pretty good to her. He has, after all, an excellent library.
So suppose you had decided to go to Scotland on holiday, and after a day spent tromping through the heather and gorse you had ended up here, in this obscure country pub where the locals have a taste for storytelling and the goods to deliver it? And the ballad-singers (including Musical Director Alasdair Macrae, who does most of the narrative parts, and who composed much of the music) were better than you had any right to expect? So good that they could conjure up the men and women and devils who made up the story, in their solid and plaintive flesh?
And that those men and women were not the Kings and Generals of Aulde Tymes but the nattering priests and priestesses of today’s academy? And these priests and priestesses and balladeers sung out their astonishing story with such an infectious and pulsating rhythm that you could sing along with them? – and you will, just like you will make it snow with shreds of your paper napkins, or be ridden like a motorcycle by one of the characters, or be tickled under your chin by another. Your experience would be much the same as if you go to a production of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, except that Prudencia will not require a passport.
The business of conjuring the world of the living and the dead in the middle of a pub is a serious one, and this excellent cast goes to it with vigor and relish. For slightly more than two and a half hours these actors become their characters with such fealty that it really seems like they have been conjured, rather than merely represented.
The National Theatre of Scotland’s
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart
Closes: December 9, 2012
Bier Baron Tavern
1523 22nd Street NW
Washington DC 20037
2 hours, 35 minutes with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Presented by Shakespeare Theatre Company
Or later – when she realizes that she is dead and in Hell and that the man she had mistaken for the kindly owner of a local B&B is actually Satan – she reacts in a manner absolutely believable for a woman of Prudencia’s character, which is astonishing since no actor and no audience members has any idea what any of these experiences would be like. Grove’s magical skills are replicated across the cast, and allow this National Theatre of Scotland production (hosted by Shakespeare Theatre Company) to do such risky things as have Satan simultaneously inhabit two bodies (McKay and Clark) without damaging either clarity or credibility. The production’s lively, and uniformly excellent execution is a tribute to the work of director Wils Wilson (whose interview with Jeffrey Walker is here.)
A playwright generally shows his technical skills in the first Act, but in the second he must show wisdom. David Greig has both, in spades. I dasn’t speak of the second Act much, but like the first, it is a mixture of the sacred and the mundane. The Devil’s home is right next to a Costco car-park, and the music of Prudencia’s undoing (by which we mean her redemption) sounds suspiciously like a soccer chant. The second Act, unlike the first, is mostly in prose, and there’s a reason for that, but its lesson is like that of another ballad – Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” in which the doomed Mariner is saved when he discovers his love for the sea’s slimy creatures, who have been created by God: “O happy living things! no tongue/Their beauty might declare:/A spring of love gushed from my heart,/And I blessed them unaware.” For the opposite of pride is not humility but love, which dissolves ego and makes score-settling irrelevant.
So if your idea of a good time is going to a pub, hearing a story brilliantly told and beautifully sung, watching superb actors bringing the story to vigorous life while drinking excellent Scotch whiskey – that is to say, if you are actually, me – you should stop reading this and go make your reservation.
Notes: Regardless of age, every patron will be required to show ID.
Patrons under 21 must be accompanied by a legal guardian.
The Shakespeare Theatre Company has partnered with Parking Panda to ensure that patrons driving to the Bier Baron to attend The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart can reserve parking in the area. STC patrons can follow this link to reserve discounted parking by creating an account with Parking Panda. Enter promo code: STCSHOWS at checkout to receive an additional 10% off.
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, by David Greig, directed by Wils Wilson. Produced by the National Theatre of Scotland, hosted by Shakespeare Theatre Company. Featuring Andy Clark, Annie Grace, Melody Grove, Alasdair Macrae (who also serves as Musical Composer and Director) and David McKay. Georgia McGuiness is the Designer; Janice Parker is the Movement Director; Gary Morgan, assisted by Emma Callender, serves as Stage Manager. (Joseph Smelser is the U.S. Stage Manager). Anne Henderson was the Casting Director and Rachel Swan was Production Site Manager.