Shot Behind The Theatre

A whimsical and readable blog

“The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart” A production by the National Theatre of Scotland presented at the Vancouver PuSH Festival

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“The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart” Program image

Upon entering East Vancouver’s The Wise theatre, I was given a program for The Cultch’s 2012/2013 season. After sipping the complementary single-malt whiskey, I leafed through it to find the two-page, black and white description of the show I was about to watch.

This is a fine example of why you should never, ever, judge a show by its poster or program.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart has been to date the greatest production of theatre I have seen in my four years living in Vancouver. I’ve dined on an entire Arts Club season (nearly going bankrupt in the process), sampled some of the 200+ young 20-something companies, experimented with site specific show at the Vancouver Fringe Festival, and tanned in some Bard on the Beach. Never have I seen anything quite like what the National Theatre of Scotland brought to Vancouver.

I have a confession to make as a theatre creator. I have tendency, when someone else’s work is really good–I mean REALLY good–to hate it. My brain’s back-seat gremlin fills up with envy, jealously, spite, scepticism, pumping air into the question “why can’t I do that?”. I have had a difficult time appreciating other people’s work over my own egotism and self-doubt, but Prudencia Hart did something to me. It stirred something that has allowed the brass-iron-adamantine gates that otherwise shamefully prohibited honest responses to theatre to open and welcome in a new perspective on theatre-making.

Theatre is story. Theatre is spectacle. Theatre is entertainment and education. Theatre is speaking from the soul and singing about it. Theatre has no room for bitter artists.

The audience follows the tale of Scottish-ballads expert Prudencia Hart as she goes from snowed-in karaoke bar to the library of the Devil. She’s confident in her research but insecure with herself until she meets a boisterous, motor-cycle academic who keeps courting her for a drink. She also falls in love with Satan–rather, Satan falls in love with her.

At least half the dialogue was in rhyming couplets to echo the reoccurring theme of ballads and poetry. From traditional Scottish verse to pop songs, the actors would regularly switch from dialogue and movement to playing the bagpipes, violin, guitar, ukulele, drums, accordion, or glass cup and spoon without missing a beat. Costumes were simple with no more than a cloak denoting Prudencia, a motorcycle helmet for her love-interest and a red-jacket for Satan. The most interesting spectacle, however, was 20 minutes prior to the show starting, the actors handed out bits of napkin and asked, out of character, for us to rip them up and toss them at a cue-line. By the end of the show, after the actors kicked around the bits of paper and the audience shuffled around during intermission, the entire floor was evenly covered in white bits. Just in time for the final scene that takes place outside on a snow drift.

While the poetry in the language, the music and the abrupt seizure of an audience member to turn him into “the boy from the clothing store” which resulted in a 30-second lap dance, the atmosphere of the night undoubtedly contributed to the show’s success. The audience sat at round tables with drinks as they might during a burlesque show. Friends chatted and strangers introduced themselves while sipping a nice drink. There was no separation between audience and performer, especially when the actor–not the character–came over with the napkins to rip up. The Scottish ballads were a prominent feature of the show but the audience never once felt snubbed or alienated from the non-Canadian culture. The lack of pretension let everything fall into place.

Vancouver theatre could learn a lot from the National Theatre of Scotland in every respect. What makes a good story, how to make a story look good and how to please an audience. The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart opened something up in the audience that night, an honest unveiling that seldom happens anywhere else in this city.

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