The devil has all the best music

PULL UP a chair and wet your whistle for an evening of anarchic theatre, live music, and strange goings-on inspired by Scotland’s rich tradition of border ballads.

Following a sell-out run at the 2011 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and a Scottish tour where it received glowing reviews and was nominated in four categories for 2011 CATS Awards and winner of the Best Music and Sound Award, the National Theatre of Scotland’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart comes to the Galway Arts Festival where it is sure to be one of this year’s highlights.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart lets audiences share a lock-in with the NTS’s company of actors and musicians and indulge in an evening of supernatural storytelling, music, and theatre.

Satan’s songstress?

The play had its beginnings when writer David Greig, director Wils Wilson, and composer Alasdair Macrae spent a weekend in an old pub in Kelso in the Scottish Borders researching the border ballads, as Wilson reveals over an afternoon phone call.

“The three of us went to Kelso to research border ballads and meet people who knew a lot about them and go the local folk sessions,” he tells me. “A lot of that ended up in the play in different ways. One of the most unexpected things is that we met a ballad collector from the Edinburgh School of Scottish Studies and she was a fascinating person with these engrossing tales of collecting ballads and the idea of finding your song, if you have your song nobody else sings it, and how do you recognise your song? It was meeting her that gave us the idea of having a folk collector as the protagonist of the play so that’s where Prudencia Hart came from.”

In the play, 28-year-old Prudencia is an academic who has devoted her life to the study of folk material. On the night of the village fête she comes to town to collect song material for her thesis. She gets caught up in a lock-in with a bunch of locals and that’s when she hears of the existence of a song beyond song…the original song…the uncollected song…the song of undoing and sets out to find it.

What Prudencia doesn’t know is that the song of undoing belongs to the devil. A wild journey through the night takes her into and out of different supernatural and natural realms always looking for the song until finally she discovers it - and is undone. She returns to the pub…where…in the last and culminating act of the lock-in ceilidh - she sings the song of her own undoing.

One striking aspect of the play is that it is written in verse.

“It just seemed logical and right as we were working on it that it should be a kind of ballad itself.” Wilson explains. “The oral tradition of the ballad is that you can change it every time and that it is made anew by each singer so we felt we had a lot of leeway with deciding what a border ballad, or any ballad, might be.

“The writing actually happened fairly late in the whole process, there was a lot of research first, but I remember David saying, ‘I think it’s got to rhyme, it’s got to be a ballad itself’, and it just took off from there. He described writing it as riding a bucking bronco; you’d have this line then write a line to rhyme with it then you’re off in a direction you’d never have dared to do if the rhyme hadn’t taken you there.

“And that’s in it as well, the sense that the story and language is leading the way and is anarchic and out of control and we just ride along with it. The whole piece has that feeling about it and part of the crux of it is if you’re speaking in rhyme or not in rhyme and that whole idea of what it means for something to be in rhyme.”

Let’s all join in

Prudencia Hart creates a spellbinding and intimate experience for the audience as they are part of the performance, with the actors right next to them, while the show happens all around them. Music and song are major elements, and on occasions the audience can join in with the singing and dancing - but sometimes they just sit and watch - like a conventional audience.

“Within the play there is a music session and the telling of the story erupts from that,” Wilson states. “There are a lot of traditional tunes played but there are also some new settings of traditional border ballads as well as quite a lot of original material.”

Wilson is a native of Yorkshire and specialises in directing productions in non-theatre spaces. Her work has been staged in locations as diverse as a department store in Watford, on public transport in Sheffield, and in the bleak and rugged Mulgrave Woods in North Yorkshire. Home Shetland, performed on the Northlink ferry Hjatland which sails between Lerwick and Aberdeen, was one of the inaugural productions for the National Theatre of Scotland.

That play, like Prudencia Hart, typifies the unique artistic vision of the NTS. With no building of its own, the company takes theatre all over Scotland and beyond, working with existing and new venues and companies to create and tour theatre of the highest quality. It takes place in the great buildings of Scotland, but also in site-specific locations, airports and tower blocks, community halls and drill halls, ferries and forests.

“I think it’s been fantastic,” Wilson enthuses as she reflects on the NTS’s success since its founding six years ago. “Vicky Featherstone has been an inspirational artistic director. She says ‘Scotland is our stage’, and if you live in Scotland you have a good chance of the National Theatre coming to you, which is what a National Theatre should be.

“With Prudencia Hart we really wanted to make a piece that could go anywhere in Scotland, any pub or village hall. The idea is if you have a really good story and fill a room, whatever that room might be, with song and story because we’re all in that same room and the lights are on and they’re involved and interacting you really make it anew every night with the audience.”

The publicity material for the play includes this memorable quote from AL Lloyd’s Folk Song in England: “The bare rolling stretch of country from the North Tyne and Cheviots to the Scottish southern uplands was for a long time the territory of men who spoke English but had the outlook of Afghan tribesmen; they prized a poem almost as much as plunder.”

A flavour of that informs the play, as Wilson observes; “It has that spirit, that wildness to it, that idea that you can walk out in Kelso and meet the Devil – and that doesn’t seem too far from the truth!”

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is at the Radisson Live Lounge from Tuesday July 17 to Sunday 22 at 8pm nightly, with 3pm matinée performances on the Friday and Sunday. Tickets are available from www.galwayartsfestival.com

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