A small academic industry is building around the work of David Greig. Books are appearing with titles such as The Sense of Place and Identity in David Greig’s Plays and the forthcoming Transnational Identities. You can imagine the playwright himself would be bemused by such attention. It doesn’t seem quite in the self-reflexive spirit of The Cosmonaut’s Last Message, let alone the throwaway charm of The Monster in the Hall. Perhaps that is why Greig sets The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart in a world of academic pedants, a place of memes, signifiers and post-post-structuralists, where the head triumphs over the heart every time.
The setting for this raucous story is Kelso in the Scottish Borders, where the folk-studies community has gathered for a symposium on “The Borders ballad: neither border nor ballad”, a title that perfectly satirises the empty dichotomies of the career academic. Poor Prudencia Hart wants to celebrate the narrative art of the ballad tradition, but to her elitist colleagues, notably the testosterone-driven Colin Syme, such an approach is dated, sentimental and gauche.
In true ballad fashion, Greig sets all this in verse. Using the kind of cheeky rhyming that can match “plectrum” with “autistic spectrum”, he subverts the traditional poetic form with references to Facebook, Asda and bed-and-breakfast jigsaws. This scores many a laugh in Wils Wilson’s rough-and-ready production for the National Theatre of Scotland, which is touring the bar-rooms of Scotland for added authenticity, wild musical outbursts and all. It also parodies the modern-day folk fan who goes in search of a genuine expression of community identity and finds only Katy Perry karaoke.
Yet the culture-clash comedy goes on for only so long. This play has its own ballad to tell: on a dark and snowbound winter solstice (snowflakes courtesy of the audience’s torn-up napkins), Madeleine Worrall’s buttoned-up Prudencia goes on an archetypal journey of self-discovery, housing estates and car parks notwithstanding.
Beguiled by a mysterious stranger, she sups with the devil and releases her own inner sexual power, as the play switches from brash comedy to an eroticised version of Sartre’s Huis Clos by way of Burns’s Tam o’ Shanter. By the end, she has gone from detached academic observer to the protagonist of her own story, finding an animal passion for the swarthy Syme and an unlikely sensitivity to the work of Kylie Minogue.