Conor McPherson (Music & Lyrics by Bob Dylan): Girl from the North Country, The Old Vic, London (Director: Conor McPherson)
By Sascha Krieger
It’s probably the kind of phone call you never expect getting even when you’ve been an accomplished playwright for the better part of 20 years. When the record company of the most celebrated songwriter of the 20th century call, a man, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, a cultural icon, the stuff of legends and myths, appropriated or rejected by pretty much every social and cultural movement of the past 50 years, when they ask you if you’d be interested in using the man’s songs in an original play, what do you say? The initial response of Conor McPherson, a son of Dublin, Ireland, was no. Then he thought about it. And thought some more. And now, some four years later, the Girt from the North Country has been born on the stage of the Old Vic. So what’s to expect from a show built around Dylan’s prolific songbook? A musical weaving a this story around them to make them shine, Mamma-Mia-style? A glorified greatest hits concert with a bit of drama added to justify the ticket price? An attempt to filter a story out of the songs that tries to go beyond them but will always take second place? The answer is: none of the above. Girl from the North Country is a masterful play in its own right, conversing with the Minnesota bard’s music not being subservient to them, a symbiosis of play and songs, of words and music that turns out to be a lot more than the sum of its parts.
A dialogue between the story and the music is what McPherson envisaged as he said in his programme interview. Which is exactly what the audience get. Every time a song is played the action stops, the actors turn from characters to performers, not shedding the person they’re playing but transcending them, moving one level above. Dylan has always been a master story-teller, in his songs, his carefully structured image, his autobiography, his paintings, his radio show. Truth for him has always been built on the art of inventing and conveying stories, stories that capture human longing, ambition, pain, love. His realm has been the desired, the unfulfilled, the questioning. And if there is a time perfectly fitted to his artistic sensibility it may lie just before his birth in 1941: the age of the Great Depression, when America lost its confidence, when its dream shattered, its identity evaporated, when humanity was stripped naked and thrown back on the existential task of constructing an answer to the ultimate question: who am I and where am I going?
A Minnesota guesthouse in 1934 is the appropriate setting for McPherson’s play. It is run by a grumpy, beaten man (the indefatigable Ciarán Hinds), more hindered than supported by a drinking would-be writer son (a passive aggressive Sam Reid), a black adopted daughter (headstrong and frighteningly noble: Sheila Atim), and a wife slowly drifting into dementia (magnificent between brokenness, mischievous humour and undying dignity: Shirley Henderson, best known as „Moaning Myrtle“ from the Harry Potter films). Drifter, caught between guilt and debt, the ghosts of the past and the devastation of the present. Inhabiting the guesthouse is a miniature panorama of american society in turmoil: a fallen-down business man (Stanley Townsend) with his family (Bronagh Gallagher, Jack Shalloo), a con artist fake preacher (Michael Shaeffer), a black boxer escaped from prison and persecuted by white America (Arinzé Kene), a widow waiting for her inheritance and clinging to the landlord in a final attempt at hope (Debbie Kurup). They come from Dylan’s songs, from the folk tradition he started out with, handed down by Woody Guthrie, and American literature, from Steinbeck (of course), Thornton Wilder, Eugene O’Neill. The despair of the dust bowl, the existential struggle of Depression-caused migration, the bare-knuckle fight of the downtrodden: it’s all here. It’s in the story narrated by a wise old doctor (Ron Cook) and it’s in the songs that sound and feel as if they carry the knowledge of generations.
It starts with a bare stage. „Sing on the window says lonely“, sings Kartl Queensborough, while the cast starts assembling the memory of a reality swept away by time and the cruel violence of poverty. A living room wall appears, furniture is carried on while the 20-piece cast forms a tableau in the background. A society, a world long gone, yet present in the loving and stubborn remembering of those who barely have a name. Dylan’s music has never sounded more soulful, more like a prayer than here – courtesy of musical supervisor Simon Hale and his magnificent 4-piece band, led by musical director Alan Berry and playing exclusively on instruments that would have been around in the 1930s. It can be an angry prayer as in Hurricane, sung by Kene, a resigned one such as Henderson’s Like a Rollings Stone, infused with desperate longing such as Atim’s bone-chillingly quiet Idiot Wind or full of the remnants of beaten love as is Gallagher and Townsend’s Is Your Love in Vain?. The songbook ranges from the early 1960s to 2012’s Duquesne Whistle, a lost soul’s (Shalloo after his character’s Of Mice and Men style death) nostalgic remembrance of life leading into the frightful desert of Señor.
It’s the soundtrack of human suffering despair and resilience and it corresponds masterfully with the same themes as acted out by the characters in the play. As they struggle to stay alive, as they cling to each other, fight for survival, rip each other off, they never lose their humanity completely. The father that sells off his daughter to an old man, the other dad killing his offspring out of mercy, the drunkard son lashing out against those weaker than him: none of them are denounced, none of them are justified. They are human beings, struggling, trying, failing, ultimately flawed. This is the world of the play and this is the universe of Dylan’s songs. A failing prayer, a distant memory and yet a presence so strong it can never be denied. Girl from the North Country is a poem of resilience, a wistful celebration of the human soul, a panorama of human existence not easily forgotten. In the very end, every one else having vanished, the landlord and his wife sit around a deserted table. They, too, are about to disappear, leaving no trace behind. Yet with an almost breaking though at the same time biblically strong voice she sings Forever Young to him. And characterises this masterpiece of a play: In moments like this, it’s what great art does: bringing the forgotten to life, keeping them forever young. Shed a tear and live on.