It’s not every show that customarily furnishes its audience with complimentary shots of single malt whisky, but the team behind The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, brought to town this week by the National Theatre of Scotland, is willing to do whatever it takes to help audience members feel immersed in the action.
Set in the Scottish town of Kelso on a snowy evening, the play tells the story of the titular Prudencia Hart, a rigid academic specializing in Scottish border ballads who finds her previously held beliefs about the world seriously challenged by a very strange and supernatural evening spent stranded in Kelso. The play’s audience will be seated pub-style in Krannert’s Studio Theatre, allowing the cast to easily move among the crowd as the evening’s events unfold and opportunities for audience interaction and participation abound.
Wils Wilson, the director of the show, explained over e-mail why that immersive and interactive dynamic suits the story of Prudencia: “[Playwright] David Grieg and I were inspired by the Scottish ceildh, a traditional night of folk songs, poetry and dancing — an atmosphere of conviviality out of which a story can suddenly spring…the fact that the performers are right in amongst the audience means they have to be absolutely ‘in the moment’, they have to have the skills and courage to really ‘be there’, and when they do that, the audience respond and all their imagination, emotion and humour come out too.”
The dynamic also relates directly to the tradition of Scottish border ballads, long poems and songs which were often adapted according to the tastes and responses of particular audiences. “These stories were collected in the eighteenth century and written down for the first time,” Wilson explains, “but they had existed for perhaps hundreds of years, passed on from one teller to the next, each teller subtly altering the tale dependent on his or her audience.” The play’s dialogue is mostly delivered in rhyming couplets to further reinforce a connection to traditional storytelling.
While the play makes plenty of references to Scottish folk lore, it also draws heavily on pop culture and refers to a wide range of non-Scottish music and poetry. (Robert Burns comes up, yes, but also Robert Service…and Kylie Minogue.) Even at its most Scottish, Wilson says that she hasn’t found that non-Scottish audiences have trouble understanding what’s going on. “At first we gave audiences a list of Scottish words and phrases, but we found pretty soon that that was completely unnecessary and a bit of a distraction. We took the show to Brazil and even there the story communicated, although many people must have missed a lot of specific references. People understand all they need to through the action. It helps too that here in the US there is such a huge affection for Scotland and knowledge of the culture.”
A few small changes were made here and there for the sake of American audiences, however. “At a very important moment,” Wilson explains, “two characters end up in a supermarket car park, which in the UK version is Asda. Everyone in the UK knows that Asda is a lower end supermarket, utterly generic, completely unromantic, and that going there is usually part of the daily domestic grind that you would rather avoid – and their car parks are about as dreary as they come. All those associations are really necessary to us, so we needed to find an equivalent. We asked around when we first got to the US and obviously there are no Asdas here so we decided to change the line to Costco. It has the same connotations – and really handily, it has two syllables, so it didn’t affect the rhythm of the verse. Also it is such a great sounding phrase: Costco car park. People suggested Walmart to us but ‘Walmart car park’ just doesn’t sound as catchy!”
After a successful initial run over five years ago in Glasgow, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart has been successfully touring internationally for several years and has garnered a host of glowing reviews along the way as a fun, high-energy night of theater that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Wilson says the show still feels fresh to her. “I love the fact the show is different every night, that the audience is so important to the shape and feel of the evening – it means the show stays honest, fresh and vital…I still get goosebumps before every show!”
She adds, “It’s a show which makes it incredibly clear that theatre is about a live relationship between the audience and the performers. It makes every performance unique and exciting – there is always a sense of jumping into the unknown for everyone involved.”
Ready to jump into the unknown with Prudencia? All performances are currently sold out, but you can join the waitlist here at the Krannert website.The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart will be performed nightly at 7:30 p.m. from Wednesday, February 24th to Saturday, February 27th in the Studio Theatre at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. There will also be a 3 p.m. matinee on Saturday afternoon. Tickets are $39 (or discounted at $34 for Senior Citizens, $15 for Students, or $10 for U of I and Youth).
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Mara Bandy is an Arts Writer for Smile Politely. Find her online at:
All images by Johan Perrson, courtesy Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.