Carolina Performing Arts opened its 2012/12 season with a pleasingly, teasingly, satiric cèilidh of a play, THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART, written by David Greig, and performed by five actor/musicians from the National Theatre of Scotland. The play is set in a pub, and the CPA production took place in a pub—the Back Bar at Chapel Hill’s Top of the Hill brewpub. Since the show includes a great deal of gentle mockery of the more ridiculous aspects of academia, not to mention considerable carousing and carrying on, holding it off-campus was a good idea. You could get a beer, and those walls have undoubtedly heard far more scathing remarks about professors and their ludicrous papers than the more formal precincts of Memorial Hall. And, it was big fun.
The National Theatre of Scotland sounds like an old established institution, but in fact, if was founded in 2006—and it has no home stage. Its mission is to find and tell, and re-tell, the stories that need to be told, in the places where people need to hear them. The company, based in Glasgow, takes its shows to the people all over Scotland, and now tours internationally. They last appeared locally, at CPA, with their Iraqi war story, Black Watch. In the Triangle area, the most easily comparable company is the itinerant Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern.
But back to the cèilidh (say: kay-lee), a Gaelic social gathering with traditional music and dance. When held on the winter solstice, when at midnight a crack opens between the worlds, “a chink between the mighty walls of time,” it becomes the devil’s cèilidh, and who knows what may happen. One thinks immediately of the similar set-up in Conor McPherson’s St.Nicholas, in which the devil joins a Dublin card game late on Christmas Eve.
Prudencia Hart and her colleagues at an academic conference on Scottish Border ballads, held in Kelso, in the Borders area south of Edinburgh, should have known about this tradition, but when a blizzard traps them, post-conference, in the pub, they are caught unawares and swept into the ancient way of marking the season of darkness. Prudencia, trying to flee, runs right to the devil (David McKay, wonderfully understated), who, naturally, is a man of wealth and taste.
While this, despite its sympathy for the devil, is not the most gripping of plays emotionally, it is a delight in its use of language and rhyme, which follows the Border ballad style, and for the fantastic music. If you are from North Carolina, you will recognize in the players the gene pool that sent so many Borderers—Scots and English—into the Piedmont and especially, the mountains of Carolina, where the old songs were well-preserved (for more on this in semi-fiction, see, for instance, the film Songcatcher). And, you will recognize the music, even if you don’t know these songs. Composer and musical director Alasdair Macrae, in particular, looks like he just came down from the Carolina hills.
He (playing a staggering number of instruments, including the harmonium), and powerful singer Annie Grace (who plays the lowland pipes, and a pretty mean bodhran) are the primary musicians, but the other actors are good enough to keep up. One amusing aspect was seeing and hearing how musical influence flows many ways. Scottish traditions appear not only in Appalachia, but further west in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas and Missouri, and on its journey across America, Scottish music got familiar with the banjo (here’s Jimmie Driftwood putting the Arkansas twang on the old ballad, “Lord Randall”)—and there was actor/musician Andy Clark playing an Ozark-brand banjo in the play’s ballads old and new.
Poor Prudencia Hart (Melody Grove) needs shaking up—she is, as musician/actor Macrae intones, “intent on capturing a transcendent moment and setting it in stone.” Or as her nemesis, the uber-cool prof Colin Syme (Andy Clark) puts it to her face, she’s “just a librarian.” Perhaps a season in hell is a bit much, for unlike Syme, she truly loves the beauty and poetry of the ballads, and the whole show explicates their qualities directly.
The rhyming is marvelous; here are a few examples:
Pint of bitter/checking Twitter
And when Prudencia steps fatefully out into the storm in search of a B&B, she moves from “a room of sex, drink and violence/to a world of utter silence.”
After a very, very long time among all the books that ever were in the devil’s library, Prudencia finds the way to “fuck the devil and steal the key,” and slip back through the crack between the worlds. Back in her old life, she’ll be able to speak with unprecedented authority on what had previously been a glib presentation phrase: “hell’s place in the collective psyche.” Like the play’s producers, I’m of the opinion that the best place for that topic is one offering music, poetry and plenty of libations.
The show closes in Chapel Hill tonight (sold-out), but the tour continues. See company website for schedules in DC, Chicago and around the country.