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Jules Horne on The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart

Prudencia Hart

Photo of Annie Grace, Melody Grove and Andy Clark in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of 'The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart' by Drew Farrell.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart . . . is a storytelling show based on the Border ballads.

Director Wils Wilson and playwright David Greig are bringing Prudencia and co to pubs, howfs and other unlikely venues, in what promises to be a quirky, boisterous show in the Scottish folk tradition. “Pubs are a natural home for theatre,” says Wils. “They’re gathering places where stories are told and music is played. I really like the idea that you can be in a room somewhere, the doors shut and suddenly . . . anything can happen.”

So with the audience gathered, goosebumps nicely primed, what’s in store? “We’ve taken our inspiration partly from Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, with its heady mix of poetry, action and storytelling,” says Wils. “It’s exciting because you get the real world and the supernatural, the possible and the impossible, side by side in the same landscape, and the story can go anywhere.”

To find out more about the ballad tradition, the team spent some time meeting ballad singers and historians in the Borders. “Walter Scott might seem a bit unfashionable these days, and the ballads often get overlooked,” says Wils. “But if you approach them without baggage, you see what fantastic stories they are – full of great characters and emotions. And since the Ballads are part of an oral tradition, it feels fine to be playful and make them our own.”

Prudencia Hart herself doesn’t appear in the ballad books – she’s an invention inspired by a chance comment from Dr. Valentina Bold, senior lecturer in Scottish Studies at the University of Glasgow’s Crichton Campus in Dumfries, who has a special interest in oral and song traditions in southern Scotland. “Valentina mentioned that ballad singers tend to have one special song that they, and nobody else, sing – their ultimate song, if you like,” explains Wils. “But, we wondered, what if you can’t find your song? And what does it mean to sing it? So we made Prudencia a ballad collector who goes on a quest to find her missing song. It’s a dangerous journey of self-discovery, and she may have to dance with the devil on the way.”

The music will also have plenty of playful invention from actor and composer Aly Macrae, who appeared in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Peter Pan in 2010, and is also known for his subversive way with Scottishness in bands such as The Oatcakes, and successes with Vanishing Point theatre company. The trio previously collaborated on the National Theatre of Scotland children’s show, Gobbo (winner of Best Children’s Show at the 2007 Critics’ Award for Theatre in Scotland), where they realised adults would also enjoy imaginative storytelling in an informal setting. “We hope it’ll be a really great night out. Don’t be surprised if you find a fiddler at the next table, or catch yourself joining in the singing,” warns Wils.

Sir Walter Scott‘s own ballad collecting met with dire warnings from Margaret Hogg, wife of fellow ballad collector James Hogg, who said he’d spoilt the songs by putting them in a book. “They were made for singing an’ no for reading; but ye hae broken the charm now, an’ they’ll never be sung mair.” Happily, she was wrong, and their spirit (and a few bogles) will rise again in this lively production.

Jules Horne is a playwright and journalist based in the Borders.

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