THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 2nd July, 2019
First produced by the National Theatre of Scotland in 2011 as a piece of pub theatre, David Grieg’s engaging play gets a production on a grander scale at the New Vic. It begins as a meeting of academics at a conference about folk ballads and, as everyone speaks in rhyming couplets, there is a heightened sense to the narrative. We meet our heroine, the bookish, strait-laced Prudencia (Suni La) fighting her corner against pretentious naysayers and revisionists. We meet Colin (Matthew McVarish) blokey and annoying. We meet a host of characters as the ensemble of four populate the increasingly rowdy and drunken conference. It’s funny stuff and the humour is engendered and enhanced by the writing. The rhymes are sophisticated and witty; director Anna Marsland is at pains to retain the patterns of naturalistic speech without glossing over the rhymes. Grieg makes great use of enjambment and assonance and other things I barely remember from A Level English Lit.
Prudencia sets out in the snow to find a B&B… An encounter with a character from her beloved ballads changes things forever. ‘Nick’ (David Fairs) is all the more sinister because of his normalcy. He is in fact the Devil, come to take Prudencia to Hell.
It’s a play of two halves. After the verse of the first half, the second is mainly in prose. It gets a bit meta as Prudencia tries to use verse to assert power and make her escape.
Suni La makes Prudencia an appealing figure, who loosens up as the action unfolds. For her, Hell is a transformative experience. David Fairs is superb as the satanic Nick, funny, charming and formidable – scary at times. Matthew McVarish is great fun as the drunken Colin, the unwitting hero, and there is sterling support from Eleanor House as a moustachioed professor and Alice Blundell as a plaintive Woman. All the cast play musical instruments and sing, keeping the pub flavour of the entertainment going.
E. M. Parry’s design has books suspended like bunting – the books are integral to the storytelling, with illuminated pop-up versions displaying locations. Marsland uses books as stepping-stones to help Prudencia along her journey, which is symbolic as well as visually satisfying. Daniella Beattie’s lighting and charming projections enhance the storytelling nature of the piece. All levels of the auditorium are put to use, so while we don’t get the intimacy of a pub theatre, we are surrounded by the action as well as being part of it.
Irresistibly engaging, beautifully presented, and ultimately life-affirming, this unusual yet accessible play is a delight from start to finish. And who doesn’t enjoy a bit of Kylie? (And no, it’s not Better The Devil You Know)
Suni La as Prudencia Hart (Photo: Andrew Billington)
Leave a comment | tags: Alice Blundell, Anna Marsland, Daniella Beattie, David Fairs, David Grieg, E M Parry, Eleanor House, Matthew McVarish, National Theatre of Scotland, New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, review, Suni La, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart | posted in Review, Theatre Review
The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 24th September, 2013
David Grieg’s “sequel” to Macbeth begins with the English army pretending to be trees. It’s an almost drama lesson kind of a moment and establishes the tone very rapidly. These are soldiers abroad, bluff English lads with earthy humour and a job to do.
That job is to overthrow a tyrant and bring peace to the warring nation of Scotland. There is contention about Malcolm’s claim to the throne. It turns out that the tyrant’s wife’s death was misreported. She appears, very much alive with news of a son and heir – from her first husband… This boy is in hiding and the people are getting behind him.
Grieg dispenses with iambic pentameter and gives us contemporary dialogue albeit in historical costume and an emblematic setting. Parallels with the 21st century are obvious. We think of Iraq and Afghanistan and now (since I first saw this production at the RSC) Syria, and the question of military intervention there. Taking out the tyrant is all well and good but what next?
This is the problem facing Jonny Phillips as Siward, portrayed as a decent man trying to manage a difficult situation. Phillips is every inch the commander, a Game of Thrones hero. His adversary is Gruach, Macbeth’s widow – an excellent Siobhan Redmond, who seduces and beguiles, hinting at the dangerous woman she always was.
A strong ensemble includes Tom Gill as the boy soldier who serves as our narrator in his letters home to Mum, Joshua Jenkins as Eric the archer who seeks the more fleshly spoils of war, and Sandy Grierson as a less than ideal Malcolm, self-serving and arrogant. I particularly liked Alex Mann’s Egham, who provides a lot of the humour as he tries to make an inventory for Scotland’s treasury.
Roxana Silbert, now artistic director of the REP, revives her production from the RSC, as a means of setting out her stall. With this production she shows she can sustain our interest with some complex comings-and-goings, and create provocative dramatic action. The play is very much from the soldiers’ point of view and we get the sense that Silbert understands these rather masculine attitudes – I was reminded of Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker.
That Lady Macbeth’s singing attendants are more than a little Middle Eastern in their dress over-emphasises the point. We get the point and would get the point if they were in kilts or army blankets.
Beautifully designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, this is a good-looking production that brings to the fore some knotty moral questions without necessarily offering answers.
Photo: Simon Murphy
Leave a comment | tags: Alex Mann, Birmingham, David Grieg, Dunsinane, Jonny Phillips, Joshua Jenkins, Lady Macbeth, Macbeth, review, Robert James Hopkins, Roxana Silbert, Sandy Grierson, Siobhan Redmond, The REP, Tom Gill | posted in Theatre Review