Girl from the North Country – Written and directed by Conor McPherson. Music and lyrics by Bob Dylan.
Artists who diversify have sometimes been viewed with suspicion. An actor makes music? Bruce Willis crooning Under the Boardwalk springs to mind (don’t bother). A rock star makes a movie? Mick Jagger played a mercenary in Freejack (really, don’t bother). David Bowie’s last work, Lazarus, was a sprawling, experimental piece of theatre which used his songs in a dynamic, thrilling way. But would the play have worked without the music? I don’t think so, and I saw it workshopped in New York and then tightened up in London. In fact, after seeing Girl from the North Country, I wished that Conor McPherson was the Irish playwright that Bowie had engaged, rather than Enda Walsh, the one he did. Because while Lazarus could not stand easily on its feet as a play, Girl from the North Country certainly can. There were a couple of ill-judged parts, more of which later, but on the whole this was a dazzling night at the theatre.
It’s 1934 in Duluth, our man’s birthplace. The Great Depression has taken hold and casts a chill over proceedings like the local cold. The parallels between Dust Bowl America and our own recession, turned into cutting, cruel austerity, are marked. The narrator (Ron Cook), a doctor, introduces us to the scene, and provides grounding throughout. We are in a guesthouse, leaking money and about to be put into foreclosure, run by Nick (Ciarán Hinds), a gruff man with a complex life: a wife with dementia (Shirley Henderson); an adopted African American daughter (Sheila Atim) who is seemingly pregnant at 19 by someone long gone and also being pursued by a predatory, creepy old man (Jim Norton); and a layabout son (Sam Reid) with his head in a whisky bottle most of the time. He has a mistress (Kirsty Malpass, stepping in from the ensemble, superbly), who asks for little, and can’t stick around much longer in this desperate economic climate. We meet a variety of dishonest lodgers, tempers fraying, trying to eke out a living in impossible times.
The dialogue races by, each strand woven together masterfully. I was gripped by the intensity of the storytelling. And then, there’s the music. I thought, how on earth could this work? Will dropping a bunch of Dylan songs into an autonomous play distract? Will Americana arrangements suit? Will the choices make sense given that they can’t further the story? After all, he didn’t write these for the play. And then the first song, Sign on the Window, drifts in and wow, just wow, it all coalesces better than I could have dreamed. A hipster-looking (1930s beards/attire is twenty-first century hipster chic) house band (double bass, piano, fiddle) accompanies the actors, who take turns on percussive instruments. Twenty songs are used to soundtrack lives of anger and passion, sadness and regret, worry and loss. I was sometimes taken out of the moment, if briefly, to reflect: this song is part of me, part of the fabric of who I am. But then a second later I was locked back in to 1934 Minnesota. It’s a tightrope walk and McPherson, previously known for his supernatural works, has aced it. There are no easy choices here: you try and pick 20 Dylan songs out of them all to accompany a plot organically and soundtrack this highly strung chaos.
The performances are remarkable, particularly Henderson as Elizabeth, Nick’s wife. She gives an untethered lightness to the role that is sure to win her buckets of awards; I predict the Olivier for Best Actress. Physically slight, and 51 but looking two decades younger, she is a mismatch for a big man of 64 like Hinds. They don’t convince as a couple in that sense but there is genuine chemistry between them as he tries to cope with her disinhibited behaviour towards the guests. There are no weak links in the company, with Sheila Atim in particular owning the stage during both dramatic and musical moments as a woman who everyone wants to control. Her version of Tight Connection To My Heart took my breath away; nearly unrecognisable, it is all the better for it. As the stories interlink, and there is much to weave in, we come to a couple of troublesome moments.
A young African American man arrives (played flawlessly by ensemble player Karl Queensborough) and reveals himself to be a boxer just out of prison, so he says. This is a pretty clumsy way to shoehorn Hurricane in later on; it didn’t fit, at all. In fact, after a tight first half, it came off the rails, briefly, shortly into the second. It almost felt like McPherson had lost his own threads and, while he tried to find them, shovelled in a couple of songs that didn’t fit. He pulled it all back together but then took the only major misstep in the play, a storyline of parents and their adult disabled son.
Portraying disability is not easy, and unless it’s central (like in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time) it’ll come across as throwaway or played for effect. The actors in this plotline were fine enough, with the mother in particular (Bronagh Gallagher) compelling. But a confusing blackmail scenario with a menacing Bible salesman (Michael Shaeffer) led to exposure of their ‘secret’: the son had sexually assaulted a woman and the family had to flee. Their section ends with the father, at the end of his tether, letting his son drown. Then, appearing as a ghost in white clothing, the son (Jack Shalloo) returns to render a gospel-tinged rendition of Duquesne Whistle. None of it worked and such a portrayal of disability was inappropriate and veered to the offensive given that the ghost was miraculously cured of his learning difficulties. This inherent condescension was compounded by a regressive decision to cast this character as dangerous in the first place. I tried my best to forget it, because it should not sully the rest of the play.
I’d decided not to spoil any musical surprises by finding out the ‘setlist’. My dad bought a programme and scanned carefully to see which were to be featured. I turned away, much as I had done for Lazarus: I wanted to gasp with surprise when Jokerman appeared (it was the first Bob song I loved; Infidels came out on my seventh birthday). Or grin and feel an inner thrill at the storming, foot-tapping, tambourine-bashing version of Slow Train, making it sound better than it ever has. I’m not going to drone on about voices, and how these singers give new life to the material. But they do. I don’t need to tell you anything about Bob’s voice, its tenderness in these later years mixing with a road-worn timbre (she said politely). Watching excellent actors embody these songs sets light to them, shooting jolts of electricity through their hearts. And quite frankly, it is no bad thing to have an audience become agog at these lyrics because they can actually hear the deathless words perfectly. It all reinforced my great love for this material; you won’t believe how delightful it is to hear Like a Rolling Stone with a snippet of Make You Feel My Love in the middle. A pleasure to hear tracks from each decade too; it would have been easy to make it all 1960s stuff, given its relative proximity to the 1930s – acoustic renditions would have fitted seamlessly. Instead, there are just three songs from that decade, a welcome, gutsy, non-obvious choice.
McPherson has set himself a challenge and pulled it off. He manages to evoke Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town as well as the work of Eugene O’Neill. He also makes you want to drag Street-Legal and Infidels out of storage. The songs run between 1963-2012, and each one is judiciously chosen. What Simon Hale, the orchestrator/arranger, has done with them will melt you in your seat; simple but ravishing, these often moving interpretations of music you know inside out will make you hear them anew.
Girl from the North Country, described by McPherson as a ‘conversation between the songs and the story’, is full of life. It is about trying to find hope through suffering and making the best of it. Dylan’s ‘team’ approached McPherson to write and direct this play, no doubt having heard tell of his acclaimed works The Weir (which ran at the home of new theatre, the Royal Court) and Shining City. And of course we know that hands-off Bob is never quite hands-off; even though he played no part in the writing or arrangements of the dialogue or songs, he did send Jeff Rosen to attend rehearsals. The last time the canon was offered it was a flop, a Broadway show in 2006 that closed after three weeks. But this time, gold has been struck. I hope Bob gets to see it and I feel sure he’ll be very proud of this inspired play bearing his name.
Girl from the North Country ran at the Old Vic from July-October 2017.