David Grieg

Strange Doings in the Scottish Borders

Preview of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, Arts & Ideas Festival

Annie Grace, of the National Theatre of Scotland, has performed in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart more than 400 times, all over the place. The troupe and their signature play are back in New Haven this weekend to kick off the 21st annual Arts & Ideas Festival and to give New Haveners a newer taste of a play that first played here on its first world tour back in 2012.

There are two new cast members this time, filling the essential roles of Prudencia (now played by Jessica Hardwick) and her rival Colin Syme (now played by Paul McCole), and then there’s the supporting cast of three (Grace, Paul MacKay and music director Alasdair Macrae) who play a whirlwind variety of supporting roles and many authentic instruments—Grace plays Scottish Border pipes, whistles, ukulele and the bodhran (a drum), and sings. Her “musical husband” Macrae plays fiddle and guitar and they’ve been collaborators on many projects and performances.

There’s another member of the cast as well: the audience.

As conceived and written by David Grieg, with the original members of the cast and director Wils Wilson, the show is designed to take place in a pub and it’s meant to involve the audience in sundry ways. “The audience is in close contact to the spectacle and becomes part of the show, that’s essential,” says Grace. Last time, Prudencia played in June in the backroom of the Wicked Wolf. This time, it’s found a more suitable locale at Gryphon’s Pub, the hang-out of Yale grad students tucked away off York Street (officially it’s The Graduate and Professional Student Club—or GPSCY—at Yale). Prudencia’s tale of sparring and romancing academics at a winter conference in Kelso in the Scottish Borders region should feel right at home.

The music and story, Grace says, were inspired by border ballads, such as Tam Lin, a tale of metamorphosis at the hands of a fairie queen. There’s also a run-in with the devil and much enchantment, as well as a ribald romp of a bacchanal. As Grace says, Prudencia is a straight-laced, buttoned-up sort, who is “actually a wee bit naughty but doesn’t realize it.” Stuck in a blizzard in the Scottish Borders, she comes to learn that “hell is a bed-and-breakfast in Kelso.”

Paul McCole, Jessica Hardwick, Annie Grace, Paul MacKay, Alasdair Macrae

Paul McCole, Jessica Hardwick, Annie Grace, Paul MacKay, Alasdair Macrae

Grace says Prudencia is a play “that keeps on giving,” an extended work “dear to our hearts because we helped create it.” Initially, Greig showed up with six pages of script and the basic idea. He had been working in site-specific theater for children and was eager to do the same thing for adults. And where do adults become most like children? Why, at a pub of course. The show has gone up in small halls and theaters as well but Grace says it’s not the same ambiance. In fact, a key comic scene takes place in a pub in the play—or a pub within a pub—where the cast gets to do knock-offs of the kind of folk scene one finds in Kelso. This time the tour will end in Kelso itself. One can only imagine the devilry the locals will get up to for that event—since the scenes set in the pub there were inspired by actual local performers that Greig encountered on his “fact-finding” visit to the town. So, instead of the kinds of ancient ballads Prudencia is keen to encounter, you get a laughable bollocks of “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

No matter how many times they play their roles, Grace says, the troupe members are “always finding new things. David Greig is really a genius and the play is so very clever.” Most of the script is in verse and, Grace says, it sometimes takes a while for the audience to realize it. The devil, however, speaks prose and the scenes of satanic encounter strike a different note from the rest. There are also jokes about academia and popular culture and the once cutting-edge combination called “cultural studies.” “Colin is keen to bring folk studies into the twenty-first century,” Grace says, and Prudencia is less than amused by his fast and loose approach to their mutual discipline. Which makes for a lot of fun at the expense of both. Some of the references are starting to date a bit, Grace concedes, “iPods aren’t a new thing any more and are starting to be a bit passé.” Still, it’s not as if we didn’t all live through the early 21st century.

In looking for locales for the show, Grace says, the troupe needs a big room with good sight lines. “The play was conceived as a storytelling show—like 30 people sitting around a fire.” So it’s best with an audience of 120 max and tables and maybe a bit of drinking. In explaining the show and its setting, Grace refers to an old tradition: what it means “to have a song. Like a party piece, the thing you sing” that becomes your trademark, so to speak. Prudencia, she says, “has to find her song.”

And what better place to find a song—that’s also a tall tale, a quest for personal fulfillment, a journey of discovery, a research expedition, a romance, an enchantment, and a deal with the devil—than in the Scottish Borders, in the snow? Or in New Haven, in a pub.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart plays tonight, April 1, at 8 p.m., Saturday, April 2, at 3 & 8 p.m., and Sunday, April 3, at 3 p.m.


International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents:
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart
From the National Theatre of Scotland

Created by David Greig and Wils Wilson

Festival 2016

March 30-April 3, 2016
The Gryphon's Pub
204 York Street
New Haven

Coming to Grips

Review of The Events David Grieg’s The Events, brought to the International Festival of Arts & Ideas by Actors Touring Company, directed by Ramin Gray, is a play very much of our time. In the twenty-first century, so far, there seems to be no end to random acts of violence directed, most often, by a lone gunman against some more or less helpless community—school children, college students in class, movie-goers, office-workers, or, in Norway (the event that jump-started Grieg’s effort), campers. In The Events, “the events” refer to a young man opening fire on a community choir in an unnamed town. Claire, a clergyperson and the leader of the choir, survived, and has been trying to come to terms with the events.

One way to do that is by getting her choir-members to deal with it through various efforts—from the intrusions of shamanic exercises to, one supposes, consciousness-raising forays into multicultural music. That’s the humorous side of the play, which stems from the fact that Claire, played with very natural, real-person charm by Derbhle Crotty, is essentially an outgoing, positive person who finds herself trying desperately to fit the atrocity into a worldview that could make sense of it. The reality of Claire’s position as a choir-instructor is ably supported by the play’s use of actual choirs, local to wherever the play is staged. This adds not only actual members of the community to the drama, but also creates, for the viewer, a very telling sense of the random and fortuitous. You may know someone onstage, or not, but in either case, you are aware that those onstage might as easily be from the audience. Grieg’s view of what makes our experiences “common” takes its impetus from the way “we” all suffer from attacks upon random citizenry and translates it into a changing collection of persons who just happen to be there when you are. The night I saw the play, the Greater New Haven Community Choir took the stage and did a fine job, particularly in the soprano parts.

Claire, obsessed and still likely in shock and mourning, goes off to interview those who knew the young man—The Boy, and everyone else Claire interacts with, including her gamely supportive partner Catriona, is played by the same actor, in this case Clifford Samuel. The interest this affords is in letting the “others” to Claire’s search for answers morph at will between different persons. In a sense, Claire is always interrogating “The Boy,” so why not let him be everyone? The problem it creates has to do with characterization, where little effort is made to differentiate the people Claire comes into contact with. At one point, interviewing the man The Boy chose as political spokesperson—a racist whose views seem to jibe with those who, for instance, would drive all non-indigenous persons out of a once homogenous country--, as well as The Boy’s father, and another boy The Boy went to school with, the differences in person are mainly suggested by changing to a different chair. That’s not so troubling when these persons can be reduced to different speeches of denial—denial that they had much to do with The Boy and insistence that they cannot be implicated in his murderous actions—but it is a bit more bothersome when Catriona and The Boy himself take the stage.

These latter two roles aren’t simply ancillary to Claire and The Boy. Catriona takes on stature as the person whom Claire herself begins to abuse in her anxiety. Those events seem to suggest that trying to deal with violence—as a choice, as an act, as an aftermath—might make bullies of us all, but that level of the play would be aided by a different actor for the role. Similarly, using the members of a local choir to be, en masse, a character, or, in small ways, voices who read from scripts to ask questions or respond as audience members to The Boy’s fantasy of himself as a spokesman for a celebrated warrior ideal (or is that Claire’s fantasy of him?), undermines a sense of individuality. In other words: there really is no one else in this universe but Claire and The Boy, which may be true from Claire’s perspective, but certainly isn’t true from The Boy’s nor from that of anyone else who suffered loss from the events. Claire becomes a representative of an idée fixe. So, finally, much rides on her ultimate meeting with The Boy.

It should be said that the lead-up to that event is Claire’s “fame” as the woman who advocates forgiveness for The Boy. She, it seems, has understood the Christian injunction to forgive those who trespass against us, particularly those who strike us with the greatest enmity. That aspect of Grieg’s play draws upon the notion that someone who strikes against a community from within that community is still part of that community and can’t be relegated to “an enemy” or outsider status. The soul-searching that comes from such events is due to the fact that the killer not only killed some of us but is one of us. Claire’s position becomes the one that a Christian community should favor, and yet, that’s not how the general or legal community necessarily views it. And we have doubts as to how sincere Claire’s forgiveness is too.

Indeed, the weakest part of Grieg’s play is in the scene between Claire and The Boy. In part, this has to do with the labels Claire brings to the meeting: either The Boy is or was insane, or he is or was evil. Neither tag does much to illuminate what, in fact, he is. And Grieg doesn’t seem to know either. What we get is a kid much like any kid—one who is now and for the foreseeable future a prisoner, a ward of the State, we might say, with a psychotherapist and many more people, than ever before, concerned about his well-being. What he isn’t is insane or evil. Perhaps the point is a lesson for Claire but, in dropping any of the racist rhetoric that seemed to motivate The Boy, the scene plays out with no great difference between Claire and The Boy, as if all that separates them is which side of the gun they were on, that day. I think we might reasonably expect a bit more consistency from racist ideologues and clergy both.

The staging of the play on the wide, mostly bare stage—but for a piano, risers, and chairs that Crotty arranges and removes at various times—at the Yale Rep has an air of rehearsal and demonstration, as though we—the audience—happened upon a choir class and got caught up in an enactment of recent events by its leader and another member. What draws us into the play is its vivid sense of Claire’s personality and her very real sense of not being adequate to what she must live with and make sense of.

In the end, the community she has striven to serve serves her as a place to enact her commitment to others and to the healing and communal aspects of song, offering if not answers about the recurring wounds to our social body, then at least a figure for the therapeutic loss of self in the embrace of the communal that seems to elude the haters, the attackers, and the dispossessed.

The Events plays for two more showings, today at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.

International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents

The Events By David Greig Directed by Ramin Gray

Commissioned by Actors Touring Company and Drammatikkenshus, Oslo Co-produced by Actors Touring Company, Young Vic Theatre, Brageteatret and Schauspielhaus Wien

Composer: John Browne; Actors: Derbhle Crotty, Clifford Samuel; Pianist: Magnus Gilljam; Designer: Chole Lamford; Lighting Designer: Charles Balfour; Sound Designer: Alex Caplen; Associate Director: Polina Kalinina; Dramaturg: Oda Radoor; Dramaturg: Brigitte Auer; Casting Director: Julia Horan; Company Stage Manager: Jess Banks; Technical Stage Manager: Jon Jewett

Participating choirs: New Haven Chorale, Western Connecticut State University; Greater New Haven Community Chorus; The Wayfaring Choir; The New Growth & Friends Choir, The Cathedral of the Holy Spirit Mass Choir; West Hartford Women’s Chorale

Yale Repertory Theatre June 24-27: 8 p.m.; June 28: 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.

With All My Hart: The National Theatre of Scotland at Wicked Wolf

ARTS & IDEAS: Writer David Greig and director Wils Wilson have created a touring production that brings a bit of Scotland to this year’s Arts & Ideas. The National Theatre of Scotland’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart mixes scholarship about border ballads with folklore about unwary travelers snagged by the devil, incorporates romantic comedy situations and also tweaks the twee staples of Scots culture as well as the tweeting tendencies of our global moment. And what’s more, most of the show is in rhyme, and heavily inflected by Scots’ accents—ta buute!

Staged at the Wicked Wolf Tavern (all productions of the play on tour will take place in taverns or in tavern-like settings), Prudencia Hart is a good night out, managing to be funny, brainy, bawdy, spooky, sexy, silly, and a wee bit longer than it needs to be. It tells the tale of a scholar, Prudencia (Madeleine Worrall), who goes to a conference in the sticks, only to be ruffled by a rival colleague, the hip-as-can-be Colin (David McKay), and then subsequently—to avoid close quarters with him at a B&B—gets lost in the snow, only to encounter mysterious characters such as the Woman in White (Annie Grace) and an affable fellow (Andy Clark) who may have dark designs.

The cast is joined by Alasdair Macrae, the award-winning composer and musical director of the play, who aids in sundry ways by bringing in music, playing an emcee, and helping to keep things rolling with his manic presence. If fatigue sets in, it’s probably going to be during the lengthy masked bit, which has the feel of one of those interminable drinking games that are better experienced far from sober—the topic here is the debauchery of some locals in the town of Kelso, and is perhaps the sort of thing that might play better not so far from home. As it is, for comic purposes, I was much more entertained by the mock-ups of the kind of local jokes posing as talents one would be likely to find in a Scots pub on a cold winter’s night, flailing the hide off over-familiar folk tunes.

Another longueur surfaces in Act 2—and part of the trouble is right there: it’s a two-act play that has to pad itself a bit to sport a proper length—when our heroine Prudencia is imprisoned in a hellish B&B (though the extensive library makes it heavenly to our ever curious lassie) and the exchanges between Prudencia and her host resort to prose.

There’s no way this part isn’t going to seem flat after all the sprightly rhymes and bouncy rhythms of Act 1. The slowing of the pace serves a purpose, but it has the feel of a glass of bubbly after the bubbles have gone.

The game cast makes the most of the space, moving about among the audience, jumping up on the tables, and coming at us from all sides. One improv moment I particularly enjoyed occurred when Colin greeted a fellow seated at my table (Broken Umbrella Theatre’s Ian Alderman) as “Hamish”; Hamish-Ian greeted him back and was told “ah, you’ve lost your accent.” Without missing a beat, Alderman replied, “I’ve had amnesia.” Again, most of this sort of hijinks occurs in the first half when we’re all still delighted with each other’s company. In the second half, there’s an attempt to bring the energy back up to the raucous by having McKay, in his underwear, cavort karaoke-style for the worshipful locals, but I found him more entertaining bickering over the deconstructive tendencies of modern scholarship rather than loutishly strutting.

Andy Clark’s sinister host was well done and Annie Grace’s spooky lady—lit only by the light (“once a Girl Guide always a Girl Guide”) on Prudencia’s head—memorable with her keening vocals. As Prudencia, Madeleine Worrall embodies perfectly the stodgy intellectual who ends up finding a bit of peril, a bit of fun, and a whole lot of new material for her research; she boasts a wonderfully settled composure no matter how wacky or other-worldly the goings-on might be.

As a staging space, the Wicked Wolf leaves a bit to be desired. The lighting is, for the most part, restaurant houselights, not great at setting a mood. The part in total blackness, but for Prudencia’s beacon, was a welcome change, as were the candlelit bits. There’s also the large brick pillar in the center of the playing space to be considered, and where you sit in relation to it will affect your access. The National Theatre of Scotland has no home base and so presents its moveable feasts all over the country and all over the world in site-specific locations. The benefit of avoiding the tired old distance between audience and actors is the feeling of lively impromptu in a shared space.

More than anything, Prudencia Hart is to be relished for its language, for the lilt of the accents, for its music and voices and many clever asides. It also managed at times—miraculously—to transport us to cold and snowy Kelso on a very hot June night in a not overly air conditioned New Haven establishment.

And that strange doing was most welcome.


IF YOU GO: What: National Theatre of Scotland's The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart When: June 22-23 & 26-30 at 7 p.m.; June 23, 24, 27 at 1 p.m. Where: Wicked Wolf Tavern, 144 Temple St. Tickets: $34-$45 ($15 food and beverage minimum) Info: artidea.org

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