David Greig’s 2011 play tells the story of a straight-laced academic whose conference trip to Kelso veers disturbingly into the unknown.
Anna Marsland’s revival for the New Vic is head-spinningly surreal. Heavy books are suspended overhead as the production begins. It’s clear that academic endeavour is preventing Prudencia Hart (Suni La) from enjoying living in the moment.
Prudencia’s area of research is “the topography of hell in Scottish border ballads” and, in keeping with this specialist area, much of the play is in verse. Sometimes the comic rhyming couplets, with their dissonant subject matter, work beautifully – such as when “Hades” chimes with “the ladies” – but occasional blips in intonation and emphasis mean the jokes don’t always land.
The production is deliberately dizzying as it progresses: cast members continually circle and projections spin in-the-round to represent snowstorms and vortices. Daniella Beattie’s inventive lighting design reflects the mood throughout – a demanding task with so many shifts in tone.
David Fairs is compelling to watch as he morphs through various ensemble roles into the mysterious figure of Nick. He teeters just on the right side of ridiculousness, with his insidious eccentricity nicely contrasting with the cool reserve of La’s Prudencia.
The play warns of the dangers of over-intellectualising existence, yet it’s hard not to be drawn into a consideration of its deeper meanings. But even though ideas whirl and whizz around, the quest for narrative truth is never quite realised.