In storytelling—that most misused of arts—horses absolutely must not go in front of carts. A ballad starts where a ballad starts and this is the start of Prudencia Hart’s.
Shamefully, this is my first post of the year, when I have so many things to tell you and keep letting the words tangle up inside me. There’s always a temptation to keep them in until they’re perfectly sorted, or closer to it, but the result of doing so is that I hoard tangle upon tangle, snagged into a trichobezoar of thoughts and feelings.
So though I have not sorted through all the significance, the implications, the ramifications of the play I saw the other night, I want to share it anyway.
My eldest brother invited me to join him in watching The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, a curiously-named production by the National Theater of Scotland. Indeed, it was curious in a lot of ways: five Scottish actors playing about 12 roles, singing and playing instruments besides, in a pub (the Corner Brewery). Weaving amongst the patrons, the cast grabbed us with their absorption in their characters, with rollicking rhymed couplets, and with well-deployed props: a violin bow playing a windshield wiper, flashlights serving for headlights, a rug for the rending of space and time, and most memorably, napkins the audience tears up and hurls into the air for snow. I took care to cover my huge mug of beer and the three shared half-pints of cider from this precipitation, and felt very clever about it.
Feeling very clever is something of an important point in Prudencia’s undoing. Prudencia Hart is the academic that most of us would recognize and, I think, sympathize with. Having finished her thesis on the Scottish Border Ballads, she does not pass up speaking at a conference about them, despite her contempt for the others on the panel; the grad student’s pursuit of a free lunch may factor into her attendance. She’s aghast at Colin Syme’s testosterone-and-meme-driven commentary (and his Kylie Minogue ringtone), Siolagha (a fancy way of saying Sheila, Prudencia fumes) Smith’s post-post structuralism, and Professor Macintosh’s theory of negative reading (whatever that is).
The blizzard from which I protected my potables, it turns out, keeps Prudencia from returning to Edinburgh when the conference ends. She is stuck an hour’s drive away in Kelso, fending off Colin’s offer of a drink et cetera and keeping to herself amid a bacchanalian sort of karaoke scene. Ignoring the warning from a fellow pubgoer – namely, that it is solstice night and at midnight begins the Devil’s cèilidh, when “a chink between the mighty walls of time” opens – she sets out into the snow to find a B&B.
Left, and left, and left again: she believes she’s come to a bed and breakfast with an unexpectedly huge library (look at these first editions – it’s like heaven!), but the door locks and there she is, caught in hell. Four millennia she spends there (cleverly compressed for our convenience) before a fling with the Devil enables her to escape. Colin becomes a sort of knight in half-clothed glory, pulling her out and keeping her from tumbling back into Hell.
The pub again demands that she sing. The Devil appears. Her eyes on him, she ends the evening with Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.”
Here’s the thing: that feels like a lot of plot rehashing, though it’s more of a plot skeleton. It doesn’t depict how captivated we all were. It cannot contain Prudencia’s face as she regards the ballads, her colleagues, the perfect library, the devil she’s fallen in love with, or her confusion about the reality of what she has just escaped. It most certainly doesn’t make sense of this strange sympathy for the Devil. There’s none of the rhyming lines, witty and sparkling.
Really, I’m afraid there isn’t much sense of it that I can give you. But there is a cracking good play and a good night at the pub. My brother and I laughed so heartily the producer thanked us for leading the more reticent to react. We came away having shoved aside the veil of the karaoke culture and glimpsed the ballad’s Hart.