Reflecting his own mercurial nature, it’s almost inevitable that any theatrical piece based around the songs of Bob Dylan would be something out of the ordinary. But Conor McPherson’s spooky, strangely moving play with songs seems to be something quite remarkable – as experimental and invigorating as it is mysterious and magical, existing somewhere fascinating just beyond our ken.
Even the background to this incredible show is improbable. One day, apparently out of the blue, the Irish playwright and film-maker Conor McPherson, perhaps best known for his haunting supernatural play The Weir and a man who’d never shown any inclination to pen a musical, received “a strange enquiry from Dylan’s people. ‘Would I consider using Bob Dylan’s music in a theatre show?’, an idea that I initially dismissed as some sort of bizarre joke.” But on reflection the notion came to him of setting a play in a guesthouse in Dylan’s own birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota during the Depression era of the early 1930s, a decade or so before Robert Zimmerman was even born. This, reasoned McPherson, “would free the songs from the burden of relevance for our generation and make them timeless”.
Soon after this concept got the nod from the man himself, a package arrived for McPherson containing 40 Dylan albums and a note inviting him to use “any songs any way he liked”. Dylan himself wouldn’t even visit rehearsals, giving the show’s creators, including the musical arranger Simon Hale, total freedom to craft something that’s about as far as can be imagined from the sort of greatest hits compilation that drives the average blockbuster/jukebox musical.
What we have here instead is “a conversation between the songs and the story”, delivered by a sizeable cast of talented actors and musicians, who sing and play to the audience rather than as one character to another. It’s based, observes McPherson, on the realisation that Dylan’s songs “can be sung at any time by anyone in any situation and still make sense and resonate with that particular place and person and time.”
Nor are the songs themselves the obvious choices. There may be a couple of anthemic versions of such familiar songs as Like A Rolling Stone and Forever Young but many of the songs (drastically re-arranged in a way which chimes with Dylan’s own, erm, fluid relationship with them, especially live) come from the less-explored corners of Dylan’s vast catalogue. Starting off with a couple of, relatively, crowd-friendly scene-setters from his 1970 New Morning album, it very quickly veers off into the likes of Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anyone Seen My Love?), What Can I Do For You? and Jokerman from his often-unloved, certainly less-explored late 70s-mid-80s output, including the Born Again period.
Sometimes these songs are juxtaposed in startlingly effective and provocative ways, such as a pairing of Hurricane and Idiot Wind via an echo of All Along The Watchtower but, somehow – and it’s a bit of a Dylan-esque mystery exactly how – all the songs are woven into a strange, neo-Biblical (or at least semi-supernatural) narrative set in a struggling guesthouse run by Nick and Elizabeth Laine, along with their black adopted daughter Marianne, who’s pregnant but unpartnered – there’s even a momentary suggestion that the fathering of the baby was some sort of supernatural occurrence. Their son Gene is a drunken would-be writer and Elizabeth suffers from a form of dementia that sees her swing from near-catatonia to exhausting energy and alarming truth-telling. Moving mysteriously around this family are a Basement Tapes-friendly cast of locals and guests including Dr Walker (who doubles as a weirdly-omniscient narrator), the widow Mrs Neilsen (who is involved in a relationship with Nick), a married couple, the Burkes, on the run from their creditors, along with their possibly murderous adult son Elias, with a mental age of four, a black boxer who was unjustly imprisoned and a villainous Bible salesman – the latter an odd couple who arrive in the middle of a dramatic storm and might be escaped convicts.
Not by any means a play for nerdy Dylan-obsessives, Girl From The North Country is a haunting, unique creation that should resonate with any receptive audience long after the lights come up.