If you’re travelin’ in the north country fair
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine
Following Bob Dylan being controversially awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature earlier this year, both the literary and musical worlds have been thrown into a state of debate surrounding the relation of lyrics to Literature. Literature has a rich oral tradition of storytelling and the snobbery of some scholars to classify lyrics as poetry has left a huge gap for exploration. In light of this the storytelling nature of Dylan’s lyrics are being pushed even further as London’s Old Vic under the creative eye of Connor McPherson (who was approached by Dylan’s team to create a musical from the songbook) are using his music as part of a new musical The Girl From the North Country, titled after one of his iconic songs. Often termed “Jukebox” musicals, this form of musical creation using a pre-existing soundtrack such as the repertoire of a particular band or singer (Mama Mia offering a classic example) or musical hits from a particular time frame (Rock of All Ages) as the stimulus for a narrative. For The Girl from the North Country the adaptation process has come from fitting Dylan’s songs around a plotline rather than using the songs themselves to form the story. The songs accentuate certain points and really capture the emotion of the characters in particularly poignant moments.
The musical centres around a guest house run by couple Nick and Elizabeth Laine (Ciarán Hinds and Shirley Henderson) with their son and black adopted daughter in the winter of 1934 following the crash in the town of Duluth Minnesota (Dylan’s home town). Depression in many forms has overtaken the country as these people cope with immense suffering. Nick owes more money than they can ever repay and his wife Elizabeth has succumbed to dementia; time is running out. His son Gene (Sam Reid) is unemployed and claims to be writing a great novel while adopted daughter Marianne (Sheila Atim) has fallen pregnant to an absent man who worked on the ships. On top of their own troubles the family are hosting various other hopeless cases in their guesthouse. A respectable married couple Mr and Mrs burke (Bronagh Gallagher and Stanley Townsend) with their simpleminded adult son Elias (Jack Shalloo) are hiding from creditors following a failed business and a marriage on the brink in their fall from grace. Widower Mrs Neilsen (Debbie Kurup) is waiting out her time at the guesthouse for her half of her husband’s railroad investments. Hot on their heels are escaped convicts who pose as “bible-seller” Reverend Marlowe (Michael Schaeffer) and an ex fighter Joe Scott (Arinzé Kene). The overall story is told through the narration of George Arthur Walker (Ron Cook) the community’s local doctor who explains at the beginning that these are their last few months, leaving us in no doubt that we are witnessing an end.
Elizabeth is the standout character, played phenomenally by Shirley Henderson, who brings out the character’s struggles with dementia and takes on a childlike energy. Her madness has a distinct and uncomfortable honesty and she acts as onlooker to much of the musical’s events observing from her chair at the side which sits atop her mysterious box. Nick explains at the beginning “when someone turns around and tells you ‘I don’t love you anymore’, do you know what the worst thing is? There’s nothing you can do… people all over the world love dirt bags, don’t mean they gotta love you”. This was prior to Elizabeth’s illness yet he has remained by her side to nurse her through. Nick is not all sweetness and light however in his affair with guesthouse resident Mrs Nielsen quite often right in front of Elizabeth and at times she shows acute understanding of what is happening between the pair. Their relationship is intricate and complex and allegiances shift continually as we empathise with the hardships facing each character and both can be as difficult as the other but it is their relationship that sustains the others especially towards the end. Elizabeth sings the masterpiece “Like a Rolling Stone” with such power and emotion, all inhibitions lost, there is hardly a dry eye in the audience and the words “when you’re on your own” take on entirely new meanings.
Racial differences are also sensitively aired in the character of Marianne whose options run incredibly thin due to her skin colour in an America that is intensely divided. She was brought up by Elizabeth and Nick after she was found abandoned in the guesthouse and at points we hear of Nick’s difficulties in being seen out holding hands with a black daughter. Her pregnancy means Nick sees few options for her when bankruptcy gets nearer and he proposes that she wed the elderly shopkeeper Mr Perry (Jim Norton) an option which she flatly refuses. Sheila Atim has fantastic stage presence and her relationship with adopted brother Gene is playful and captivating to watch as he shows tenderness towards her as his sister yet outward racism towards other characters like Joe. Vocally she delivers some of the strongest performances and the arrangement of “Tight Connection to my Heart” is hauntingly beautiful as she asks “has anybody seen my love?”
The success of this musical is telling acclaim for the beauty and emotional impact of Dylan’s lyrics. This is not a gratuitous money spinner, instead a far more thoughtful experiment that explores a poignant story going above the music and cheesy nature of the average “jukebox” musical. It also carefully chooses songs from Dylan’s extensive songbook to complement the narrative it is trying to tell, rather than just reeling out the greatest hits. McPherson who has himself never written a musical was the perfect choice for the task and storytelling is put ahead of giant climactic numbers and unnecessary choreography. The musical numbers are not a tool in which to propel the plot forwards but rather an en exploration if psychology and add to the overall feeling of the depression era. The phenomenal acting and complexity of plot pushes Dylan’s music into the background where it adds greater depth to the production but is not the centre. The Girl From the North Country will be like nothing you have seen before and even the most discerning Dylanite would fail to be won over by its charm, humour, and beauty of spirit.
Girl From the North Country is showing at the Old Vic until the 7th of October. For more information and tickets see here.