What led Eastern Angles to invite Prudencia Hart to dance with the devil?
- Credit: Archant
Eastern Angles know a thing or two about folk tales – particularly Eastern Anglian folk tales – but this year’s spring tour offers us something a little more exotic – not only a trip to the Scottish borders but to a place where time plays strange games with your senses.
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart by David Grieg was commissioned by the National Theatre of Scotland in 2011 and made such an impression on audiences north of the border and has so many resonances with our own rural history and folk traditions that Eastern Angles artistic director Ivan Cutting felt it deserved an audience south of the border.
He gave the play over to Hal Chambers to direct after his huge success bringing Ragnarok to life in the Hush House at Bentwaters Park.
Speaking to Hal and the cast during a break in rehearsals they describe the play as an epic mix of folk tale, music gig and bizarre mystery. “It’s all these things and more,” laughs Hannah Howie, who plays Prudencia, “But, the best way to enjoy the play is to come to it cold. Don’t find out too much about it, don’t get spoilers from people who have all ready seen it. Just come along and surrender yourself to the story – be taken on a journey to who knows where.”
She says that the play starts with her character Prudencia Hart on her way to attend an academic conference when she gets lost in a snow storm. Has she experienced some time slippage? Is she is the present or is she in the past? The audience will have to make up their own minds.
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Music and folk tales are interwoven into the main narrative accompanied by figures from the past. This strange and beautiful Scottish tale is told by four mischievous storytellers. Sometimes they speak in bombastic rhyming verse, sometimes through beguiling traditional folk songs and the audience will be invited to immerse themselves into the action.
Hannah says: “As the snow falls Prudencia begins a mystical adventure of self-discovery and takes the audience with her. Perhaps the past is not as academic as she thought and the folk tales are more than just whimsical stories?
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“A lot of folk stories, especially border ballads are about a maiden who finds herself in a situation with a devilish like creature and this builds on that premise and contextualises it. It starts in a modern, more realistic place and ends up in her own folk tale.”
Simon Donaldson, who plays The Devil, says that the author David Grieg has a lot of fun with the play and makes stylistic changes that both keeps the audience entertained while also providing markers to allow them to follow the action.
“Prudencia, having been tempted by The Devil is then trapped in this alternative reality for who knows how long. Interestingly, the normal part of the story, real-life, is all told in verse and when we enter The Devil’s world, the dialogue then goes back into prose.”
Hannah explains that Prudencia’s mission is to return herself to a world of verse-speaking – real life – but now with a greater understanding of what the border ballads are all about.
Hal Chambers says that he enjoys working on plays with substance and heart but then staging them on a grand scale so audiences can lose themselves in the action. “The play is all about love and redemption but also finding your way through life negotiating the problems and pitfalls which the world throws at you. It’s also about recognising your place in the world while at the same time opening up yourself to new experiences.
“And part of that is the role that music plays in the show. The music is amazing. I defy not to get caught up in such catchy, energetic music and because music plays such a big part in our story and in folk tales in general there is a wonderful sense of spontaneity which runs through the show – that slight air of danger which suggests that no-one is entirely sure what is going to come next. That’s the musical element of the show – the play itself is a brilliantly constructed narrative that will keep you guessing. It’s a wonderful marriage of styles.”
He says that the music element provides a useful metaphor for Prudencia’s life. “She is a collector of these old Scottish folk ballads but she is also very an academic. She doesn’t really engage with them on an emotional level. She’s an observer and keeps everything at a safe distance.
“When she is dragged into ballad it’s as if The Devil is saying to her: ‘Stop studying life and start living it.”
When Hal staged Ragnarok in 2014, he used puppets to create an other-worldy, larger-than-feel to the production. This is something he wants to attempt again but not on such a vast scale. Puppets, he believes, gives an audience a further reason to suspend their disbelief and fully enter the which is being conjured up on stage.
They help, along with the music, to create a genuinely immersive atmosphere. “I am working with Bek Palmer, a designer who has a daringly dark imagination and brilliant mask and puppet designs, who has gone that extra mile to create a night of spine-tingling shocks and tantalising thrills.
“The audience will be an active participant in this story. The way we are staging this means that the audience will be at the very heart of the story. Get yourself a drink, pull up a seat and enjoy the unforgettable experience of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart!”
Eastern Angles’ The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart by David Grieg is on tour across Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex until May 27.