Last night I saw the London production of “The Girl from the North Country.” The play’s production illustrates well how context can change a work of art.
I traveled 4,000 miles to see a play in London written by an Irishman integrating work by a Jewish iron-ranger with a British cast portraying a multi-racial rooming house in what was once Minnesota’s second largest city in the 1930s. The Irish playwright is Conor McPherson and the integrated work was 20-some songs by Bob Dylan.
How much went wrong in such an enterprise? I suppose plenty. I could see seams, but it seamed not to matter much. The core idea, of placing Dylan’s songs in the context of the 1930s worked well. Songs you believed needed to be set in the beatnik early 60s or the cultural turmoil of the around 10 years we don’t name as a decade after that, or against the Reagan/Thatcher or Christian fundamentalist revival and so on, lived inside different lives anachronistically.
Is it a Dylan musical? Not really. Minutes taken out of context could look like that somewhat new form, the Jukebox Musical, but the dramatic material is darker and more substantial than the kind of utilitarian connective material in a Jukebox Musical’s book. This is play with music, not music connected by play. The songs are all sung by the actors, and the musicians are all on stage, sometimes mingling in tableau. In one brilliant little piece of business, a drum set placed upstage has various actors in the cast sitting at it and banging out simple but effective Basement Tapes backing.
In the best moments, the songs (or portions of songs, few are sung in anything close to their entirety) function like an ancient Greek chorus, or at least as I read those classic Greek plays in English translation. The play (or book if you must) reminded me of Eugene O’Neill, someone I have not read or seen in performance in decades. Poetic dialog was uttered often, but character context kept this from being overly artificial (it’s a very unusual cast of characters).
The parts are well sung, and the all-acoustic band with period-correct instruments does well. Same with the acting, which ranged from excellent to good, in a performance that demands a lot from it’s cast. As an evening of theater my wife and I thought it was transcendent, as theater should be. At the end of the performance, about a third of the audience jumped up in standing ovation, followed slowly by another portion, perhaps a third again. As we walked out we heard the reaction of some of that sitting third, disappointed at what has been a very well-reviewed production. I have no idea what the London-usual is for ovations, but in the Twin Cities, everyone stands almost all the time.
My wife doubts it will ever have a U.S. production. She thinks the material is too dark to appeal to audiences seeking uplift for their expensive theater tickets. I’d add that the play’s plot is very indirect with lots and lots of dead ends and shaggy dog story elements. If one is open to that (as I am) this doesn’t hurt anything, but some will miss the comfort of standard story through-lines. By chance I saw “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” on the plane trip over, and its Irish screenwriter, Martin McDonagh, also setting his story in America, has a similar shaggy storyline, and asks for similar emotional commitment for unexpected sharp plot turns. McDonagh’s screenplay however, treats most of its characters, most of the time, as morons. This is not a metaphorical epithet. I found it puzzling and ultimately disrespectful for no good effect that so many in “Three Billboards” were played as being so dumb.
By contrast, in “Girl from the North Country” McPherson has two characters who frankly have mental disabilities, and yet even they are offered more discernment and respect from their author creator in his play.
You do not have to be a Dylan fan to enjoy this play, but you do have to accept a tale that starts with all in trouble and finishes with things worse for almost all, and with a singing of “Forever Young” that could cause you to never hear the song the same way again.
Actual storefront in Hampstead. A sour joke:
vaccination against consumption was not available to apothecary/surgeon John Keats
Today we paired my wife’s love of nature with my love of Keats by visiting the Keats House near Hampstead Heath. Keats House is the duplex that was Keats last rental home, and the place where he wrote many of his best poems. There are few real Keats artifacts, but the house contains some of them and replicas of others. Seeing Keats marked-up Milton books, covered with underlined passages and marginalia in Keats own cramped hand was one highlight. I’m no expert on early 19th Century English living standards, but the living quarters seemed surprisingly middle class adjusted for the time considering what I knew of Keats struggles with money.
My wife caught a break in the grey gloom and rain showers to spend some time roaming the heath while I nursed a cup of tea and started some blog posts and people watching. I have no Bob Dylan to share today, but here’s a version of John Keats “In the Drear-Nighted December” performed by the LYL Band.
6 thoughts on “London between rain showers”
Hi Frank, I’m curious to know which Dylan songs were employed in the show. It sounds wonderful. Thanks for the post!
The songs used: Sign On The Window, Went To See The Gypsy, Tight Connection To My Heart (Has anyone Seen My Love?), Slow Train, License To Kill, I Want You, Like A Rolling Stone, Make You Feel My Love, You Ain’t Going Nowhere, Jokerman, Sweetheart Like You, True Love Tends To Forget, Girl From The North Country, Hurricane, Idiot Wind, Duquesne Whistle, Señor (Tales of Yankee Power), Is Your Love In Vain?, and Forever Young.
Some are mashed together into medleys, most are not sung in their entirety. When they work, and often enough they do, they comment obliquely on a situation the play has arrived at. Usually, the actor(s) steps up to a mic stand, or sits at the drums to sing the song, and sometimes takes on an completely different, even magical, aspect of their character.. Another neat thing is the songs cover most of Dylan’s career, not just “the hits.”
The script looks like its available as a not-to-expensive book. I may get that, but I’m also not sure how it’ll work on the page. The performers and the stage business bring so much to it.
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Sorry for not getting back to you, Frank. I got married last week! That’s an interesting selection of songs – certainly not the hits! I wonder if a production will turn up anywhere else in the world. I’d really love to see it. Thanks for the list and the explanation. Much appreciated!
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Let not the marriage of true minds admit impediments!
There’s a Canadian production of “Girl of the North Country” planned, but that’s all I heard so far. I still think someone will mount in it Minnesota due to the local connection of the setting and so on.
I’m sad to say that I haven’t had a ‘transcendent’ experience with much London theatre… And usually disagree with the reviews. I’m glad to hear your take on ‘Three Billboards’ tho – I agree and was overall unenthusiastic about the film – but all the British people in my acting class disagreed with me and loved it!
Poor, poor Keats! I can’t believe I still haven’t been to his house in Hampstead; I must go when the weather gets warmer. I hope you had a great trip!
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On “Three Billboards” I felt the acting, particularly Frances MacDormand, tried to save the script and make the characters arresting even if they weren’t believable. I Didn’t think for a minute the screenwriter/director understood anything about Missouri, even if he had some insight into grief.
I keep trying to interest my spouse in seeing more theater. Perhaps eventually I’ll know more if I agree with critics. Twin Cities has lots on offer, but most plays get two reviews due to diminished journalism.
The Keats House is a modest little thing, there’s just so little physically left of the man whose name was writ in water. The notated Milton in his handwriting felt intimate to me even through the glass, and being able to touch and see the death mask cast in 3D made it worth it.