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.