Border tales

Following critical and commercial success in Britain and the US, the border ballad The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart makes its way to the Adelaide Festival for a different night of theatre, which will be high on raucous laughs and folk songs, as well as drinking.

Written by Scottish playwright David Greig and directed by Wils Wilson, The Strange Undoing... is a brand new border ballad, which is a traditional tale/folk song from the border region of England and Scotland where the ballads tell stories of raids, feuds, romances etc. In fact the origin of the National Theatre of Scotland production has a border ballad ring to it, as the press material states that Wilson, Greig and composer Alasdair Macrae travelled to a pub in Kelso to research border ballads. The three were then ‘locked-in’ a folk club overnight due to a snowstorm. In the early hours of the lock-in an old man told them a story about a group of people who came to Kelso to research border ballads and that one of them, a woman, was never seen again. And this ‘110 percent’ true story of love, music and the devil was the inspiration for Prudencia Hart. Director Wils Wilson says this story may have been embellished in the border ballad tradition.

“I’m beginning to find it hard to remember what was actually true,” Wilson laughs. “We told this story and David, I’m sure, has embellished it so I now believe it’s true. We did go to Kelso. We had a weekend in Kelso, which is the town where it’s all set and we did go to the folk club. David swears we got snowed in. Now, I don’t think we did. I think we got snowed in later when we were working on the story. But David will not have it. David believes we got snowed in that weekend. This mythology of how it all came about is part of it. We enjoy that because border ballads are like that. Anytime someone tells a border ballad it changes and depending on what audience you’re telling the story to, you change it or you sing it differently or you tell it differently. That’s how we made Prudencia to have that feeling that it’s responding to its audience. That’s why we kind of enjoy that sense of where it came from.

“We like the idea that it’s a modern border ballad and that we’ve written a new one in the tradition of the storyteller who’s taken it a little bit further. We like the idea that we’ve taken it and we’re not re-telling a border ballad but that we’ve made one.”

Set in a bar, which for Adelaide is The German Club, Prudencia Hart is unlike any other theatre production with it audience interaction, bar-like atmosphere, and a fluid show that reacts to its location and audience. 

Prudencia has a lot of involvement with the audience and the company talks to the audience. Even when you first walk in, the company talks to you and they ask you to do things; you actually have to make snow. You sit around tables and you have a drink, and there’s this convivial atmosphere. It’s more like going into a bar, it’s not like going to the theatre at all.”

Does this ever-changing atmosphere make it hard for a director like Wilson (who will travel to Adelaide for the Festival)?

“I suppose to me it would feel like very hard work to be doing something that was perfected and had to stay the same. That would be hard work in a totally different way.

“We change it for every room we go in but what makes the biggest difference is just the character of each audience – the way they respond. If they’re a responsive audience, or a more listening audience, it completely changes the performance in subtle ways. It’s always a conversation between the audience and the performers, so you never, as a director, have that question: ‘How do I keep my actors fresh?’ because the piece just keeps them fresh.”

While Wilson isn’t sure if Prudencia Hart has kickstarted a border ballads revival, she says that people are interested in the traditional tales, which seem to have skipped a generation from her parent’s generation to now.

“My dad, for instance, his generation would learn border ballads. He started to reel one off when we first talked about Prudencia. They used to learn them at school. It is true that my generation didn’t get taught about them at all. They have gone off people’s radar. And people, certainly in Britain, would know about them a little, so there’s an interest in them. There’s definitely a revival in folk music and the ideals of folk stories. There’s a huge and growing interest in that, so I think it’s all part of that trend really.”

Prudencia has been travelling for a few years now and Wilson hopes its run continues for as long as it can.

“We constantly look at each other with amazed delight with what it’s done. I remember when we made it and David was writing in the corner of the room while we were rehearsing it, and it was made in an intense way. We completed a lot of the story’s planning before but the making of it, and the writing of it, happened very late. You can still feel that energy in the show of what that process was like. And Ali, who’s the composer, described the first show as an ‘adrenaline-fuelled onslaught’. It should have that feeling; it has a wildness, which we love. It has kept that from that time. When we were making it we had no idea that the response would be so enthusiastic and that it would go to all these places. I just hope it will go on forever. I would be delighted for it to go as long as it possibly could.”

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart
The German Club
Friday, March 1 to Saturday, March 9
adelaidefestival.com.au

 

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