The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart

Isn’t that a beautiful title? That is a beautiful title. You read that title and you think, ‘that is something I want to know more about. That is something I would sit down and hear a story about.’

I wish I had come up with that title.

I didn’t come up with that title. This guy did.

But, still. It’s a beautiful title.

And it’s a beautiful play. I was lucky enough to get day tickets on Monday night (it’s entire season is sold out, except for Monday nights, which you have to buy, online, from 9am on the day of the performance) and despite the sweltering weather and the fact that the venue HAD NO AIR-CONDITIONING (ok, ok, its England, they got caught out, but, STILL) it was a wonderful, wonderful play.

I don’t generally write about things I’ve seen because I don’t think I do it very well. But I’m going to try and write down my experience of this one, because I think it’s important to understanding a lot of things for me – about why I went to Ireland, about why I love the theatre, about what draws me to folk music and folk tales.

A little back story. ‘The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart’ is a based on Tam Lyn and other folk tales in which the hero is taken into a parallel fairy world/hell and about what happens when they finally get out again. ‘The Strange Undoing’ is set on mid-winter’s eve in a Scottish border county town called Kelso where an uptight academic (Prudencia Hart) is attending a conference entitled ‘Border Ballads (neither Border nor Ballad?)’ If that wasn’t injury enough for Prudencia, her car then gets covered in a snowdrift and she has to spend the night in a pub hosting a karaoke ‘nite’ with a fellow ‘folklorist’ who studies ‘The X Factor’ and football chants. Desperate to escape, she wanders off into the night to find a B & B and that’s when things go from bad to worse.

If it were just that, it would be an enjoyable enough play. But the thing that makes the play truly fun is that it is done in a ‘storytelling’ style, with the actors/storytellers/musicians alternating between acting characters, providing narration, singing/playing songs and creating the set and props out of a variety of objects they find to hand, including tables, napkins and audience members. The audience is spread through the space on folding chairs at the London Welsh Centre (as dowdy and untrendy a mid-twentieth century community space as it would be possible to find – from which stems it’s incredible charm) while the Scottish songs start blare out on traditional Scottish folk instruments (I messaged my father to ask if this is what is called ‘getting in touch with your roots’. He replied it was simply ethnic confusion on a grand scale). The storytelling is interspersed with Scottish folk songs, performed by the actors on a variety of instruments stored on a table up the front of the room.

And here we get to the trouble. I can’t really explain to you what these folk and traditional songs to do to me. If you search for ‘Will Ye Go Lassie Go?’ (the show’s opening number) on YouTube, you get a series of mawkishly slow or tackily upbeat covers. You’ll listen to those songs and think I’m pathetic for being so easily moved, so simply manipulated. But done live by a group of musicians you’ve never heard of, all of whom are just a few feet from you, standing tall, confident and looking you directly in the eye – conveying with their eyes that something big and significant is about to occur – well, suddenly these little songs become another thing entirely. They’re simple songs, yes, songs that you know so well (even if you don’t really know them at all), things that you have heard in movies, sung by your grandparents, on ads, that you might have learnt at school, that somehow just get into you. They can be dreadful, they can be nothing at all and at other times, they will have you pinned to your seat with delight, every cell in your body on edge, aching for the next note to wash over and hit you. Is that too much? I don’t think so. That’s what it feels like. And I can’t really explain why.

And that is what this play was like. There was much that I didn’t understand. Allusions and imagery that washed over me and filled up my eyes and caught in my throat for reasons that I couldn’t fathom or explain rationally. I understand the basic plot, of course, the level one metaphors and discussion, but the reason the story was being told, ah, well, now that was another matter entirely (that was more a level ten kind of discussion). The lines made sense, I knew the meaning of all the words, but what it all added up to, well I wasn’t entirely sure. In some ways it’s very similar to how I used to think about Foucault at university (‘I know what all these individual words mean, Foucault, but when you put them together in that particular order I AM AT A COMPLETE FUCKING LOSS), but instead of frustration and annoyance (which is generally what I felt when reading Foucault – he only wrote that way so he could feel smarter by making everyone else confused), I felt lifted, stretched, as if trying to reach for the realisation of a feeling that was just outside of my grasp. The show felt like one great big attempt at describing and depicting feelings so big and complex that they couldn’t be pinned down.

When a theatre show has really grabbed me, when it has really affected me, this is how I feel – I walk out of the theatre encased in my own little hyper-sensitive bubble, alert to every stimuli the world throws at me. It’s one of the reasons I love going to the theatre on my own, so that I can leave and just walk around in my little bubble for a while, letting the images and feelings and thoughts brought up by the play just sit with me, rather than attempt to start talking and analysing and understanding and normalising and slipping straight back into real life. My favourite thing to do in Sydney was to see a show at Belvoir St or the Stables and then walk home alone to Erskineville in the cool summer air (don’t tell Dad) mulling everything over before collapsing exhausted into bed. This walk home was essential not only to falling asleep (I’d be so excited and hyped up by everything I’d seen that even if I went straight home I wouldn’t be able to sleep right away anyway) but to my enjoyment of the theatre show itself. The walk home could sometimes take as long as the play itself took and was a way of extending out that final moment of a play (the bit before the audience claps – and they always clap too soon for my money). The fact that I can feel something but I can’t fully understand it only increases the intensity of the experience (incidentally it’s also why I’d be a pretty shit reviewer – because the shows I really love take me forever to understand and digest and absorb and as this post is proving, my ability to explain what these excellent things are about or why they are good takes a corresponding nose-dive).

Anyway, what has all this got to do with Ireland and folk music? Well, as I tried to explain clumsily at the start, folk music (well-performed folk music) has the same effect on me. It’s not the music itself usually, because, as I said, they’re pretty simple songs, often done pretty poorly. It’s watching excellent musicians perform them, improvise over the top of them and bring themselves to the song. In performance, music is all about feeling. You’d think, looking at some boring hipster bands that music is all about nice clothes and closing your eyes and looking cool. But, I think it should be about a strange, inexplicable attraction. A pull, a connection between you and the musician and the music. Something that draws you into a song or a band or a musician for a reason you can’t quite put your finger on. It’s that strange mix of confusion, hyper-sensitivity and feeling that I get after a really full and inspiring theatre show.

And, Ireland? Well, to be honest with you, I think I was possibly trying to find a place where I could feel that way all the time. And that place was not Sydney. And I’m sad to say it’s not London. I mean, I love London, but it’s just a city. A bigger city, a richer city, a city where more things happen, but it’s just a city. London is too normalised, too modern, too busy, too relentless for you to be able to be overwhelmed by things. That probably doesn’t make sense. Ok, so in London, you’re too busy trying to get from A to B, trying to figure out how to stretch your pay check, where to meet your friends, where to experience the ‘next greatest thing’ (that someone else, usually in the media, has decided is the next greatest thing). You shut yourself down so you don’t have to deal with all the mundanity (is that a word? No red lines = word). I know city living. I’ve lived in cities my whole life. I understand them. That’s not to say I don’t sometimes get stopped in my tracks by something. Maybe by something good (a show, a gig, the moon, the Thames). Sometimes its bad – like when I carelessly walk by someone I want to care about (a homeless person, an old person, an upset person – someone I care about, in theory, in the safety of my own home, but not in the real world, not in the street). In a city you walk past these people all the time. The only way to survive is to just keep on walking. But sometimes, a few steps past whoever it is that I’m ignoring, its like someone has violently ripped through all my shut-down visage and forced me to experience how shit the world is all at once and in that second. And then it passes and I shut down again.

So, I know cities. I know what it’s like. And I guess I wanted to live in a place where I didn’t feel like I was deliberately shutting myself down for most of the day. (And just to be clear – its not that I wanted to move away from cities to avoid the homeless people. It’s that I wanted to move away from cities to avoid the deliberate shutting out of all things, both good and bad, just so that you can get through your day without being constantly distracted). And I thought that Ireland, where so much folk music came from, where so many myths and legend came from, with it’s history of passion and emotion and sorrow, well, I thought it might just be a place where everyone was walking around utterly absorbed in every moment of every day.

That turned out not to be the case, of course. Not to say that the move didn’t shake me up a bit, but it wasn’t *quite* what I had expected. In any case, it was probably a very naive hope. Much as the Romantic in me (capital ‘r’, people, not the small ‘r’ romantic you always associate me with) would like to feel hyper-connected and aware of all the goodness and the beauty in the world at all times, there has to be limit. You have to be able to sleep. You have to be able to eat. You have to be able to sit still and feel nothing now and then. Otherwise you would keel over from exhaustion, spending your entire life on tenterhooks, waiting for the next wave of emotions to wash over you and drag you under (As a side note, I do find it odd that considering how much I hated the Romantic poets at high school I seem to have modelled a great deal of my opinions, ideas and life on theirs. Maybe I hated them because they reminded me too much of myself…)

Anyway, all these musings aside, I want to state how delightful it is to be willingly dragged out of your everyday mundaneness and littleness into something much broader, wilder, denser; something beyond your everyday comprehension and consideration for a few hours. And that is what ‘The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart’ did for me on Monday night.

I do still just really love that title.

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