Oozing with wit, passion, seduction and sambucas, THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART is unlike any Christmas show you’ve seen before
Scottish folk songs collide with decadent karaoke in Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre new Christmas show, THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART.
The devilish offering from award-winning writer David Greig follows protagonist Prudencia Hart, a scholar of folklore who travels through a Scottish border town on her way to a conference. As the snow outside falls thick and fast and her post-poststructuralist colleagues indulge in a bit of karaoke, Prudencia finds herself trapped in her own idea of hell, as her night is soon turned on its head.
Warm lighting, live fiddle and a sparkling drinks trolley all greet the audience as they take to their seats, giving the feeling of being invited to join in with an intimate folkish Christmas party. However, the music quickly switches to Lil Nas X, then back to a jig, before finally settling on some Rick Astley. The harsh disparity between traditional and tantalising instantly sets the tone for the rest of the performance.
As THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART gets underway, the audience is laughing within minutes. Almost childish in its comedy, the laughs come mainly from the physical performance instead of the rhyming couplets, which, paired with the thick Scottish accents, are a little hard to keep up with at times. Immediately energetic, the cast leans heavily on accents to instantly switch between multiple characters, breaking the fourth wall to give the audience a running narrative.
A large part of the first act provides a necessary back story to the sensible and sincere heroine, Prudencia Hart. For an unsuspecting viewer, this gives the impression that they can settle in and enjoy a logical history lesson on the background of folk literature. Still, as we approach the interval, the boundaries between folktales and reality start to blur as a hauntingly beautiful ballad provides an unexpected moment of stillness in an otherwise farcical first act.
Returning from the interval, the performance becomes incongruously macabre. With the floor lifted to show hellish creatures dragged into flames, the audience is jolted back into the piece with a blinding red flash. The music continues to take centre stage as low, monotonous drones set an eerie precedent for the second act. Prudencia slowly begins her descent into bedlam. The nature of the performance becomes chaotic and intense; the childish humour from the first act is well and truly left behind at the interval.
The characters sink into lust, passion, and depravity as the performance pushes on through the second act. For a short period, the piece is almost erotic, as Prudencia gives in to the unravelling of her character before ultimately using it to her advantage, double-crossing the devil to make her break for freedom.
This is immediately followed by a jarring snap back to reality. The audience is engaged in football chants and karaoke before going full circle and returning to the Rick Astley songs sampled at the piece’s beginning. So bizarrely contrary to the previous scenes that the audience is almost left struggling to understand whether they imagined it or not.
Unlike any Christmas show you’ve seen before, THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART is serious yet sexy, taking viewers on a journey of self-discovery. While it is not one to take the whole family to watch in place of a pantomime, it certainly is a piece that should be on everyone’s watch list.
THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 15th January.
Rebecca Baines is a charity worker from Manchester, with a lifelong love of theatre and music. Having trained as a classical musician and actress, performing in venues including the Notre Dame and St Marks Basilica, Rebecca is now more likely to be found in the audience with her daughter.