The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart

New Vic Theatre until Saturday 13 July 2019

Don’t be put off by the word ‘strange’ in the title of the New Vic’s latest production. There are plenty of highly dramatic twists in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart as befits any creation inspired by folk ballads, but, like the best ballads, the whole tells a lucid story.

‘Clever’ is the operative word and it comes wrapped in superlatives.

The play has a gratifyingly clever script, by David Greig. True to the ballad form, much of it is in verse, but Greig delights in levering-in contemporary references — rhyming ‘guitar plectrum’ with ‘autistic spectrum’, for instance. ‘You think that was sweet?’ / ‘Didn’t you read my tweet?’

And director Anna Marsland is ingeniously clever in the way she uses the circular forms and vertical space of the New Vic auditorium. Her company of five move so fluidly between action and narration, prose and verse, speech and song, that the story sweeps along like a Scottish burn in full spate.

So what of the plot? To steal from David Greig, “It’s hard to know where to start /  the Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart.”

Prudence Hart (Suni La) at the symposium

Prudencia is a 28-year-old postgraduate student researching ‘the topography of hell’ in the ballads of the Scottish Border. At a mid-winter symposium of folklorists in Kelso she’s the odd one out, with her old-fashioned preference for “meaning still firmly attached to a word.”

Dr Colin Syme,  in contrast, insists the old sagas / are as artificial as Lady Gaga’s. Folk moves on, and so should folk studies, he says as he steers Prudencia to the pub after the symposium. As an excruciatingly bad session of folk music gives way to karaoke and the winter-solstice debauchery the locals really want, a sudden snowfall cuts them off from the wider world and Prudencia stumbles out alone in the cold and dark in an unlikely search for a B&B.

Dr Colin Syme (Matthew McVarish) and Prudencia Hart (Suni La)

The reference books which are her lifeblood now become stepping stones through the snow, as Prudencia launches into a border ballad of her own making.

Nick, the boarding house keeper, warns Prudencia ominously, “Whatever it is you want, the opposite is the answer.” It’s a theme David Grieg returns to again and again. But Prudencia has resources unknown even to herself and develops a strategy to steer her way through her entangling opposites of heaven and hell. Grieg could just as well have opted for the title ‘The Strange Making of Prudencia Hart.’

David Fairs first appears on stage before the play properly begins, casually preparing a line of coke while his colleagues in the ensemble engage the assembling audience with a selection of folk songs. His every gesture commands attention. He plays Nick with a gripping blend of allure and menace, another clever posing of opposites. His valedictory recital of Robert Burns is both deeply creepy and simultaneously moving:  ‘And I will luve thee still, my dear, till a’ the seas gang dry.’

Prudencia Hart (Suni La) and Nick (David Fairs). All pics by Andrew Billington

Suni La’s Prudencia Hart is entirely convincing throughout her transformation, and Matthew McVarish as Colin makes the most of his gauche vulgarity, earning loud guffaws from the audience, without undermining his ultimate romantic role. Alice Blundell and Eleanor House make up the company with strong performances in supporting roles and fine music making. All are appearing at The New Vic for the first time. I trust it will not be their last.