GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY Old Vic, SE1

BOB AND CONOR: A NEW DIRECTION HOME…

 

 

Bob Dylan songs – from each of six decades – woven into a musical by Conor McPherson? At Dylan’s own suggestion? What? But here it is: moody and heartfelt as an old movie, a tale harsh as Miller or Tennessee Williams, storytelling resonant and drawing deep.

 

 

 

It is actually an inspired match, for Dylan’s songs share the playwright’s Irish sensibility. Apart from the obvious folk and hymn roots there is a particular melancholy, a dry regret, a sense of poverty knowing itself impotent but maintaining an irony, the consolation of a dance step or a late-night lock-in. Dylan and Irish song both tend to a melodic, poetic yearning which taps at the heart’s door with emotional authority and transcends time and circumstance. You can listen alone to It Ain’t Me, Babe even twenty years into a happy marriage; or weep in exile for The Old Bog Road even if you are at home.

 

 
Wisely, Matthew Warchus of the Old Vic left it to the writer to direct, and Rae Smith’s setting is sparse, unpretending, with microphones and onstage instruments as if the story was being told by buskers , as well as lived before us. Simon Hale’s arrangements and musical direction allow for a slight roughness, an air of spontaneity. The setting is a cheap lodging-house in Duluth, in 1934. The players are a community living on the edge. Ironically, just as the sunny Annie is playing just across the river with its orphan chirruping advice to the President, this is the second musical play about FDR’s Depression America to open this summer. But there is no New Deal for Duluth here. As its hero says, “We ain’t go no nets to catch us”.

 

In early film style, the local doctor (Ron Cook) narrates posthumously at beginning and end, adding to the sense of distance.   Nick (Ciaran Hinds) is the solid, striving host , on he last three weeks before  foreclosure on his house. One hope is his mistress and  lodger, widowed Mrs Neilson, with whom he has a fragile plan to start another hotel. His care for his wife continues, through the hopelessness of her dementia: there is a basic decency in the big beaten man, understated,  sometimes immensely moving, feeding her chicken stew as she berates him.  Their foundling negro daughter Marianne (a magnificent, dignified Shiela Atim, towering over her tiny adoptive mother) is pregnant: Nick hopes to marry her off to the only affluent man they know, a widower thrice  her age.

 

 

 

In from the Minnesota storm come two more to drive and aggravate the plot: Michael Shaeffer as a smoothly nasty Bible salesman, Arinze Kene as as an ex-convict boxer. Whose first welcome , in that racist age, is being called “Boy” and taunted by the son of the house, a drunken would-be writer Gene (Sam Reid). In the house too are the Burkes, failed in business, and their feebleminded, threateningly strong son Elias who is growing beyond safe control.

 

 

 

It is a big cast to manage, each with depths of hurt and failure and disappointment; but the songs knit them together in a poetic weave as powerful as the stormbound austerity itself. All the actor- musicians sing, superbly, resonantly, from depths of feeling,  with a particularly astonishing, mould-breaking performance by Shirley Henderson as Nick’s wife Elizabeth. Every line of her slight, skinny body is expressive of dementia, disinhibition and disillusion. Sometimes she is cowering like a scared animal, coaxed towards food or restrained from violence  by Nick and Marianne: sometimes dancing, unsettlingly wild, a mad Maenad parting her legs at any man, speaking inappropriate truths. But sometimes she comes to a stillness, and in an immense bluesy voice sings the wisdoms , sorrows and strangeness of some half-forgotten Dylan song.

 

 

 

I say forgotten, because drawn from fifteen different albums, only two or three are familiar anthems like Slow Train. Under McPherson’s guidance they simply grow almost miraculously from the unfolding story, from the desires and despairing secrets of these people on their various edges. Here is lost love, compromised love, failure, weakness, loneliness, endurance. Solos become duets, lines are handed from one to another, sometimes choruses form: women group round a microphone in 1930s radio-hour style, or echo the gospel roots with tambourines.  Some solos are beyond electrifying: Elizabeth’s Like a Rolling Stone, or her final, heartshaking Forever Young, an anthem of hope in the dark, a hand held to humanity. Which comes right out of one of the bleakest speeches on any stage. Duquesne Whistle makes your hair stand on end; Is Your Love In Vain, from the Burkes in their darkest moments, stuns.

 

 

Dylan and McPherson are both poets. Here they meld, mesh, converse. The roughness is necessary. It’s a privilege to watch.

 

 

box office 0844 871 7628 to 7 oct
Principal partner: ROyal Bank of Canada
rating four   4 Meece Rating

 

 

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