NICK CURTIS TALKS TO WRITER AND DIRECTOR, CONOR McPHERSON, ABOUT THE ORIGINS OF GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY
About four years ago the playwright and film-maker Conor McPherson, best known for the runaway supernatural hit The Weir which he wrote aged 25 in 1997, received what he calls ‘a strange enquiry’. ‘Would I consider using Bob Dylan’s music in a theatre show?’ Since he’d never written a musical, and didn’t think of Dylan as ‘a musicals musician’, he initially dismissed the idea, which had come from the singer’s record company.
Weeks later, walking around his Dublin home town, McPherson had a flash of an idea: a play taking place in a guesthouse in Dylan’s own wintry birthplace of Duluth Minnesota, but set in the Depression-riven early 1930s, some years before the musician’s birth in 1941. It would ‘free the songs from the burden of relevance for our generation, and make them timeless.’
He sent Dylan’s management an outline, and received an email days later saying ‘Bob Dylan has read it, likes it and is happy for me to go ahead. I was like, oh okay, I guess I have to do this.’ Shortly after that, a package containing 40 Dylan albums arrived at his door, with a note saying that he could use any songs in any way he liked.
When he asked Dylan’s manager if the musician would like to attend rehearsals, he was told: ‘I think you’re better off not having Bob in the room. Because if he comes in and says, “Why are you using this song or that song?”, what are you going to say? Because he’s Bob Dylan.’ As Simon Hale (Orchestrator, Arranger and Musical Supervisor) pointed out, ‘It was like working on a play with music, with a composer who can give you any song you want, but who demands no artistic control.’
Girl from the North Country is not a greatest-hits compilation or a classic West End blockbuster where the songs drive the plot. Rather, it’s ‘a conversation between the songs and the story’. The cast of 20 actors and musicians play performers who are broadcasting the story, as well as the characters within it. Duets are sung into microphones to the audience, rather than by one character to another. McPherson decided to use only instruments that existed in the 1930s and subsequently found it frustrating when the ‘very strict’ Hale wouldn’t let him use a pedal steel guitar or a Hammond organ.
The guesthouse setting brings a broad swathe of society together, particularly as the Depression levelled economic, if not racial, differences. It’s owned by Nick and Elizabeth, who has dementia. ‘We see her as someone who has had her id entirely liberated, who says exactly what she wants, and doesn’t think about the consequences’, says McPherson.
Their son is a drunken would-be writer, their adopted black daughter is pregnant and unpartnered. Guests include a widow with whom Nick is involved, a couple whose adult son has a mental age of four, a black boxer who was unjustly imprisoned and a bible salesman who, McPherson says, represents God and the Devil.
The songs, surprisingly, are drawn from right across Dylan’s back catalogue, not just the early, folky protest songs inspired by his idol Woody Guthrie, the poet of the Depression. ‘A lot of fans love that Woody Guthrie dust bowl kind of Bob Dylan, with 16 verses and no chorus’, says McPherson. ‘But what I was looking for here were songs with more musical development in them, that had a verse, a bridge, a chorus, a middle eight, all that stuff, that give the performers the chance to lean into something emotionally and go deeper and deeper and deeper into the music.’
As a music fan — McPherson played in bands and wanted to be a musician as a teenager, until seeing David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross turned him onto playwriting — he started out with the four or five Dylan albums he knew. ‘But then it became more interesting to go to places — and I hope this is not saying anything against Bob Dylan — that most people don’t go, or are not that interested in. His born-again Christian phase in the late 70s — during which time he made three albums — and the albums of the 80s, which are not considered a golden time for him.’
‘In the early 90s, with ‘Oh Mercy’ and ‘Time Out of Mind’, he had a renaissance, and now he’s considered a national treasure or an icon, or whatever he is now. I tried to include songs from every decade if I could.’ Interestingly, McPherson says Dylan looks most dynamic in concert footage in his born-again days, when he was buoyed up by gospel backing singers, and he has strived to capture this energy for parts of the play, though there are also songs for a lone, unaccompanied voice. The oldest track used is the title number, from 1963. The newest, 2012’s ‘Duquesne Whistle’, sounds like it could have been written in the 1930s.
When the play was scheduled for The Old Vic, Artistic Director Matthew Warchus insisted that McPherson should direct the show himself. ‘Maybe because he didn’t feel it was a traditional musical, that it had its own thing that would be ironed out by someone who might slightly sterilise it for public consumption’. With the help of David Gallagher (Musicians Contractor), Simon Hale recruited the musicians, while McPherson gathered a cast of frequent collaborators — Ciarán Hinds, Stanley Townsend, Ron Cook, Jim Norton — and newcomers.
Make You Feel My Love’, which is in the show and was a worldwide hit for Adele, had been considered an album filler and lay there for 20 years before anybody picked it up.’
McPherson began writing plays while studying at University College Dublin and had hits in the early 1990s with the collection of monologues, This Lime Tree Bower, and the solo show, St Nicholas performed at the Bush in West London by Brian Cox. I remember McPherson telling me, when I met him in 1997, that he wrote The Weir to prove to critics that he could write dialogue. That much-garlanded and much-produced play was, like much of his work, achingly humane, set in contemporary Ireland, tinged with the supernatural, and dominated by masculine voices. McPherson once said he feared he’d run out of things to say later in life. But, in fact, his work has blossomed into new areas and new mediums while maintaining its singular vision.
After the similarly spooky and arresting Dublin Carol, Port Authority, Shining City and The Seafarer, McPherson worked in a historical setting and with a predominantly female cast of characters for The Veil at the National Theatre in 2011. The Night Alive, presented at the Donmar Warehouse alongside a revival of The Weir in 2013, showed the impact of the arrival of a young woman in a house of men. He wrote his first film, I Went Down in 1997, and wrote and directed his second, Saltwater in 2000. He’s latterly moved into television, initially adapting John Banville’s Quirke novels alongside Andrew Davies, and more recently penning the original drama, Paula, with a female lead played by Denise Gough.
Now he’s written a piece full of black and white American men and women. ‘It’s probably just growing up a bit and realising we all share very basic consciousness,’ he says. ‘When you’re younger you think, well, I only know about men from Dublin. Then as you get older you realise we’re not that different. People are looking for love, security. We’re all looking for a feeling of meaning in our lives.’
If the play chimes with our current spirit of uncertainty, McPherson says it’s accidental (he started it before Brexit and Trump) but indicative of the fact that things go in cycles and the world has been here before. The music, meanwhile, supplies the transcendent dimension that the supernatural added to his other plays.
I ask him if Dylan is coming to the show. ‘No idea,’ he says. ‘He didn’t even turn up for his own Nobel Prize to begin with. When he did, he went in through the back door. So he might come along, but we mightn’t know he’s there.’
Finally, has this show whetted McPherson’s appetite? Would he like to work on another play with music, either with a musician’s existing work or creating something alongside a composer? ‘This is so satisfying I think it would be very hard to beat,’ he says. ‘So no, I’m not looking for that. This is fine for me.’
Nick Curtis is a freelance journalist.
This article was first published for The Old Vic run of Girl From The North Country