A strange thing happened to me whilst watching Conor McPherson’s mesmerising new play, Girl from the North Country. I found myself regularly reaching out to feel for my heart. It was if I was trying to feel the heat coming off it but also trying to heal something. Even now, describing this experience, I feel my heart pull – like some of the sorrow, the longing, the love that radiated off the stage last night is looking for a home inside of me.
Conor McPherson has created a new type of musical and, simply put, it is a stunner. The music here – all Bob Dylan songs – is not a sparkly add on to the script, nor is this a lazy jukebox musical. Instead it is embedded into the centre of the play where it functions as the soul of the characters. This is particularly impressive considering that McPherson’s play is set in a guesthouse in 1930s Minnesota, which means Dylan’s songs have been applied retrospectively to this new context. Such a seamless but rich connection between Dylan’s songs and McPherson’s characters points both to his consummate skill as a playwright and director, as well as the extraordinary depth and range of Dylan’s music.
Rather than restricting McPherson, the choice to incorporate Dylan’s music into his play seems to have liberated him and allowed him to write a rather loose, scattered – and utterly absorbing – piece of theatre. There aren’t really any main characters to this story or a ‘proper’ plot, but the piece is livelier and more convincing for this. Sure, the action revolves around Nick Laine’s guesthouse but McPherson is equally interested in Nick’s family and guests, all of whom are down on their luck and desperately trying to just keep going. There aren’t any neat climaxes or carefully calibrated plot-lines and lot of the time stuff – just – happens. One woman turns up and sings a mind-blowing love song, only to quickly slide away again. An old man reveals his sorrow about getting old, and quickly slopes off the stage. Every once in a while the narrator (Ron Cook) whispers warmly into the microphone and fills in the ‘gaps’ in these characters’ lives. He looks ahead and he looks back, weaving in the bass notes and subtle harmonies to the main songs on stage.
Rae Smith’s set picks up on the improvised and impartial feel of McPherson’s script. None of the backdrops seem complete. A lot of the action unfolds in the guesthouse kitchen, where a table sits in the middle of the vast Old Vic stage, surrounded by sweeping, empty, black space. The scenes outside take place against the looming facade of the guesthouse, which looks too small and rickety to contain all the life nestling inside. When the musicians sing they often stand at the back of the stage. We only see their silhouettes – a mass of people we hear and we feel deeply for, but whose individual faces are hidden.
There is a casualness to the scenes, a sort of easy and sideways approach to the intense emotions contained within, that feels very Bob Dylan (think of the cheeky little dips in his music – ‘The answer my friend, is blow-in in the wind’ – that offer some sort of resolution or meaning, only to yank it away again with an effortless swoop of the voice). The lack of clear structure or dramatic hierarchy nods to the awful arbitrariness of the Depression: no one is safe, no one is outside its reach, no one gets to decide their story.
The script and characters do not step aside for the music. Instead, the dialogue slides naturally into song. There’s a 20-strong cast of musicians and actors in McPherson’s production but everything feels exceptionally fluid, as loose and natural as those sweeping notes in Dylan’s music. When the songs come, it feels like they have been there all along. A chorus of women gather around a single microphone, cramped and close, and sing: ‘Freedom is just around the corner’. The entire cast sings ‘Hurricane’ and a boiling anarchic spirit rushes right through the audience.
The solos are particularly effective. Sheila Atim plays Marianne, a pregnant daughter loyal to her parents but desperate for a way out. Atim has a stunning voice, as powerful as it is vulnerable. She sings – ‘Does anybody see my love’ – and despite the fact we’re sitting as part of a huge audience, we feel completely alone. Sam Reid – Nick’s son, losing himself in alcohol – sings ‘I Want You’ with Katherine Draper and the dirt and shame of living in a time that will not help you, that does not want you, disappears. It is possible to believe in something better for the short duration of that song. The music gives these characters a dignity the Depression has ripped away.
The songs between the beleaguered husband and wife, Nick (Ciarán Hinds) and Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson), is something particularly special. Henderson’s Elizabeth has early dementia. She pulls at her shirt and whirls vaguely about the stage. It is only when Elizabeth sings that she is fully alive and in control. Henderson is a tiny slip of an actress but she has a phenomenal voice: rich, deep and authentic. Hinds is not the singer that Henderson is but his Nick is a prowling beast of a man, a gentle soul trapped in a bruised bear’s frame. McPherson allows us glimpses of the goodness in Nick but it is Hinds’s cracked singing that really lets us in.
In the final scene, Nick sits stooped at the table as Elizabeth stands on a chair and sings with all her might. ‘Forever Young’ she booms, as this husband and wife face a hopeless future, broke and old and clean out of options. But the power of that voice – the way that it takes Elizabeth outside of herself and lifts the entire audience – helps us yearn for the impossible. There is hope in that.
Girl from the North Country was on until 7 October 2017 at the Old Vic Theatre. It transfers to Noel Coward Theatre from December 29th to March 31st 2018.