Theater Critic: Girl From the North Country
On this day in 2013, when plans were set in motion to create a theatrical work using the songs of Bob Dylan, the planets were definitely in auspicious alignment. Because Daughter of the North Country, which opened in London in 2017, exceeds all expectations and seems to have created a new hybrid of music combined with theater in the process.
Irish writer and director Conor McPherson was asked by producers Runaway Entertainment to write a four-sentence pitch, for a story and setting, to be delivered for Dylan’s approval. He described “a Depression-era boarding house in an American town in the 1930s with a loose family of reunited wanderers, never doing well and poor romantics struggling for love and understanding as ‘they foraged deadbeats in their lives’. “We could,” he added, “have old lovers, young lovers, traitors and idealists rubbing against each other.
The response from His Bobness was almost immediate and unconditional. His treasure of songs was at his disposal. Dylan’s office sent a package of 40 albums to help get McPherson started.
The result is a striking group of portraits, a dream piece of stories and songs set in Nick Laine’s heavily mortgaged safe house in Duluth, Minnesota in 1934. Times are uncertain and difficult. The system failed. Everyone is broke, out of work, or waiting for some miraculous financial bailout. Some are scamming, others are planning to leave town to seek better prospects far away. Their destinies overlap and clash. Old loves are thwarted or found insufficient, and new loves become stepping stones for change.
McPherson’s production, beautifully re-staged for this Australasian tour by resident director Corey McMahon and his team, features the Rae Smith setting – a former boarding house lounge in dark brown and brown tones with shabby furniture and peeling wallpaper. There’s a long dining table for guests, an old upright piano to one side, a section of curtains for the four-piece band (led by Andrew Ross) in the back corner, occasional lowered flats for outdoor stages and a large screen for photographic projections of landscapes and archival photos.
The stage is dark but the performers are bathed in the warm, buttery tones of Mark Henderson’s lighting design, which showcases Smith’s warm ’30s suits in blue, scarlet, sashes, suspenders and jacquard, and uses surprising shadow and profile silhouette effects for the motion director. The swirling and chaotic choreography of Lucy Hind.
The sketchy but intense characterizations are galvanized by their oddly appropriate connection to the Dylan songs that McPherson has chosen. Longtime familiar favorites are used in unfamiliar and surprisingly new ways. Interestingly, you might say paradoxically, he mostly used dark, frayed old love songs, rather than Dylan’s famous overtly political anthems, to present and amplify the themes of social justice and social realism in the text.
They are the plaintive heart songs of forgotten and rejected people. It’s a musical version of depression by Thornton Wilder Our cityor that of Dylan Thomas under the milk woodor maybe Grapes of Wrath – located in freezing Minnesota.
The performances are exceptional and often richly comedic. Alongside well-meaning but doomed Nick Laine, played authoritatively (and sometimes with too many decibels) by Peter Kowitz, is Lisa McCune as his wife Elizabeth, only in her fifties but suffering from early dementia.
McCune gives a magnificent rendition of McPherson’s brilliant creation. Often wearing stylish art deco sunglasses in contrast to her frumpy clothes, she moves among the action like a jester or a soothsayer, or a blind busker, connecting the stories and giving the other characters the frank benefit of her unspoken wit. filtered. Like so many actors, his voice is also top-notch, setting the tone with “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love?)” and, later, with the bluesy melancholy of his reading of “Like a Rolling Calculation”.
Grant Piro is terrific as the fake Reverend Marlowe, bringing sinister implications to the ominous opening lines of “Slow Train Coming” and joined by the powerful vocals of Elijah Williams as Joe Scott, a young African-American boxer. American who was wrongfully accused and imprisoned for a violent crime.
Later, Williams does “Hurricane,” Dylan’s ballad of another boxer wronged by a false accusation, a gripping protest, interwoven with lines from the apocalyptic “All Along the Watchtower.” And, also a mark of McPherson’s wit and invention (and, of course, Simon Hale’s brilliantly lyrical arrangements), Williams sings “Idiot Wind” in a duet with (Nick and Elizabeth’s adopted black daughter) Marianne (heavily played by Chemon Theys), turning Dylan’s cantankerous rant against media gossip into a chilling evocation of racism. The strangely macabre tableau vivant of the preoccupied choir around the piano – contrasting with the solitary duo – would have delighted Meyerhold.
There are plenty of examples of Dylan’s sometimes minor songs taking on transformative depth and force in this deftly dramatic context. Helen Dallimore and Christine O’Neill, terrific as Mrs Burke and Mrs Neilsen, deliver stunning renditions of ‘Sweetheart Like You’ and (also from Infidels album) “Jokerman,” which, with six women singing harmonies around a broadcast microphone, puts a new gender accent on Dylan’s elusive lyrics.
Elsewhere, Elizabeth Hay (as Kate Draper) and James Smith (Gene Laine) sing a sweetly tender version of “I Want You” as they go their separate ways forever. In another highlight, Blake Erickson, at one point playing Elias, the mentally deranged adult son of the Burkes, returns in a white tuxedo and a hot jive chorus line to make Dylan’s cheerfully upbeat “Duquesne Whistle” an appearance. of ghostly locomotive. Hay continues the unsettling impact with a stunning version of “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)”. Mention should also be made of the pitch-perfect theatrical contributions of Peter Carroll as Mr. Perry and Tony Coguin like Mr. Burke.
Conor McPherson, aided by his baritone narrator Dr Walker (performed with Prairie House Companion panache by Terence Crawford) has, like Sean O’Casey and Brian Friel, or Raymond Carver and Larry McMurtry, told us a bunch of gripping stories of hard times that get harder and harder.
There aren’t the usual wish-fulfillment rewards of a musical, but, instead, the tunes bring tragic stoicism and defiance like a ballad to the drama. In this remarkable production, the almost cutesy “Forever Young” carries an inevitably tongue-in-cheek irony and the full closing gospel number of Checked in is called “Press”. Well, isn’t that the truth.
This production of North country girl – presented by GWB Entertainment, Damian Hewitt, State Theater Company South Australia, Sydney Festival and Trafalgar Entertainment Group – is on view at Her Majesty’s Theater until April 10.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.