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Daragh Carville on Girl from the North Country

Daragh Carville on Girl from the North Country

Old Vic, August 2, 2017

On the night of August 2, it was impossible to watch Girl from the North Country, Conor McPherson’s new play incorporating the songs of Bob Dylan, without thinking of Sam Shepard, whose death had been announced the day before. Shepard too collaborated with Bob Dylan, on one of the greatest songs in Dylan’s matchless catalogue, ‘Brownsville Girl’. As Shepard would recall in interviews, they wrote the words together, trading lines between them, each one trying to top the other, sending the story of the song off into altogether unexpected directions before bringing it all home again. The finished thing is a masterpiece: the work of two great writers working together at their peak of their powers.

So the bar was set especially high for Conor McPherson. That said, I can think of few writers better suited to the challenge. Over the course of his career McPherson’s work has been characterised – like Shepard’s, like Dylan’s – for its combination of lyrical beauty and an unflinching, clear-eyed view of human frailty. McPherson’s world – again like Shepard’s and Dylan’s – feels both ancient and modern, one of his constant themes being the way the present is haunted by the past. And so it is here.

Girl from the North Country plays out in Duluth, Minnesota, the town Dylan was born in, but is set a few years before his birth, during the Depression, in a guesthouse run by Nick Laine (Ciaran Hinds), a Shepard-esque flawed father, saddled with both a mountain of debt and a sick wife, Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson). To add to Nick’s troubles there’s his son Gene (Sam Reid), a would-be writer trying to escape his failure in drink, and adopted daughter Marianne (Sheila Atim), pregnant by an unknown father.

Around this broken family swirl the stories of the guesthouse’s residents, including a boxer just out of prison for a crime he didn’t commit, a corrupt Bible salesman, a widow waiting for an inheritance that will never come, and a failed businessman with dreams of the strong leader who will lead America out of – or into – the darkness.

It’s a cast of characters that could have walked out of the songs of Bob Dylan, and their stories are punctuated by a wide – and surprising – range of those songs. The traditional ‘jukebox musical’ approach – stringing together the greatest hits à la Mamma Mia – was never going to work with Dylan, never a ‘greatest hits’ kind of songwriter – even at the height of his powers, he never had a number one single in either the US or the UK. But there are still songs that have entered the cultural bloodstream – ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’, ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’. McPherson avoids all of these. Indeed he mostly avoids the generally-recognised high points of Dylan’s work, the albums ‘Blonde on Blonde’ and ‘Blood on the Tracks’. Instead he draws on lesser known corners of the canon, including the much-reviled Gospel period of the late seventies, and what’s generally viewed as the low point of the eighties.

In so doing, he turns up some unexpected gems, as when Sheila Atim sings ‘Tight Connection to my Heart’, salvaging it from its horrible eighties production to reveal what a great song it really is. He uses such songs to incisive and illuminating effect, giving for example the notoriously sexist lines from 1978’s ‘Love in Vain’ –

Can you cook and sew

make flowers grow

can you understand my pain

both to Stanley Townsend’s Trumpish businessman and to Bronagh Gallagher as his stoical but long-suffering wife.

Time and again such revelations happen, so that when more familiar Dylan songs do crop up – Shirley Henderson delivering ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ or Arinzé Kene (as the Hurricane Carter-ish boxer Joe Scott) serving up the Adele-covered ‘To Make You Feel My Love’, they feel a bit flat in comparison. If this is a ‘jukebox musical’ then, it’s a jukebox in a very odd bar altogether, a rundown gin-joint somewhere way out West, or in the wastes of the frozen north. My kind of place.

So why – given that I’m a fan of both Dylan and McPherson – why didn’t this show quite click for me? Why didn’t it quite sing? I loved individual scenes and songs, I felt for the characters, and yet the whole thing didn’t add up.

I think it’s because of the way the songs work with the story – or rather the fact that they don’t. This is not a traditional musical where the songs advance the story. Nor could it be – Dylan’s work is too idiosyncratic, too odd, for that. For all his recent dalliance with the Great American Songbook, his work is rooted not in Broadway but in the Appalachians, via Greenwich Village; in traditional folk songs, the world of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, what Greil Marcus calls ‘the old weird America’. To try and shape these strange, spiky songs to fit the norms of musical theatre just wouldn’t work and McPherson doesn’t try. Instead, as a programme note makes clear, what he has endeavoured to do is set up ‘a conversation’ between songs and story. But for me it’s a halting, frustrating conversation. What tends to happen is that a song will stop the story in its tracks. Yes, it might offer a commentary on what’s happening – as when Gene and former lover Kate duet on ‘I Want You’ – but the songs always happen outside of the story. They take you out of the story, so that you’re listening to the song – and all of the songs are beautifully delivered – rather than engaging in the drama.

It’s a show then, for me, that never quite adds up to more than the sum of its parts. It’s many things, wonderful things, but it’s no ‘Brownsville Girl’. But then, what is?

by Daragh Carville, August 2017

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