Beggar’s opera

Shirley Henderson in Girl from the North Country, via https://www.oldvictheatre.com

It was with a degree of apprehension that I went to see Conor McPherson’s new play, Girl from the North Country, at the Old Vic. Sprinkling your theatre production with Bob Dylan songs seems to be quite the thing to do just now, what with the Andrew Scott Hamlet recently playing in the West End with its soundtrack of Dylan numbers, and now here is an original play accompanied by the bard of Duluth’s songs. But would I want to go because of or in spite of Bob Dylan?

The story behind the production is that the playwright Conor McPherson (best known for The Weir) was approached by Dylan’s management with the suggestion that he use Dylan’s songs in a theatre production. What led to this original idea, and what made them think of McPherson, has gone unexplained, but it was an inspired decision. It would have been easy to come up with a life of Dylan interspersed with songs marking biographical highlights (‘Song to Woody’, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands’, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ – that sort of thing). Instead McPherson proposed a story set in a 1930s Depression-era guesthouse in Duluth, Minneosta (Dylan’s birthplace). The songs could be selected from all points of Dylan’s career, though with instrumentation that would only have been available in 1934.

The cast of Girl from the North Country in full flow, via https://www.oldvictheatre.com

So Girl from the North Country is nothing like those West End musicals in which a set of pop songs is strung together to tell the story of the artist (The Buddy Holly Story) or to produce a thin narrative with improbable character opportunistically scraped from a common set of songs (We Will Rock You). It tells of a guest-house owner, Nick Laine (Ciarán Hinds), haunted by his role in the death of a sibling when he was young, now saddled with a failing business, a wife Elizabeth beset with dementia (Shirley Henderson), a drunken failure of a son (Sam Reid), and an adopted black pregnant daughter (Sheila Atim). Into this mix come various lost souls brought down by the depression, each of whose lives are changed in some way by their short stay, before Nick and Elizabeth are forced to move on.

It is a remarkable production, and what makes it remarkable are the songs. McPherson has shown taste and ingenuity in their selection, aided greatly by often revelatory arrangements by Simon Hale (played by an on-stage band). Though there are some major numbers for those hoping for a ‘greatest hits’ package (‘Like a Rolling Stone’, ‘Forever Young’, ‘Make You Feel My Love’), for the most part less obvious songs have been chosen, with a significant number from Dylan’s wilderness years of the 1980s, when the creative spirit appeared to have left him – though he was mostly victim to some terrible producers.

Sheila Atim singing ‘Tight Connection to My Heart’, from Girl from the North Country

The stand-out number is probably ‘Tight Connection to My Heart’, a performance of heart-wrenching feeling by Sheila Atim that many of the audience asking themselves ‘just what is that song?’. It comes from Empire Burlesque, Dylan’s much-derided 1985 album, and only proves the case of those who champion the album for its underlying musical strengths. Expect to hear it added to the repertoire of X Factor contestants, soon. Other songs transmuted include a yearning duet version of ‘I Want You’, a beguilingly gentle ‘Idiot Wind’ (surprisingly the only song taken from Blood on the Tracks), and a revivalist rendition of ‘Duquesne Whistle’. Others are closer to the originals but nevertheless surprise on account of their selection and appropriateness to the action – notably the overlooked ‘Is Your Love in Vain?’, a personal favourite. Unlikely songs segue neatly into one another – ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, ‘I Want You’ and ‘Make You Feel My Love’ make for surprise but effective bedfellows.

McPherson writes interestingly in the programme of his choice of song. Rather than pick songs with an obvious narrative line, he went for those with an inner power and a classical construction that would best serve his dramatic ends:

I was looking for songs 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.

Despite the occasionally incongruous richness of Dylan’s verbal dexterity (“The guilty undertaker sighs / The lonely organ grinder cries / The silver saxophones say I should refuse you”) the songs almost all work in their new context, as words from anyone’s heart. The one failure is ‘Hurricane’, seemingly used only used to support the back story of one character (a black boxer, as was Rubin Carter, the real-life subject of Dylan’s song). It has too much of its own narrative, and briefly tips the production into the sort of opportunistic string-together of hits with their own storyline that characterises other pop musicals aimed at the nostalgia market.

But it is only a brief lapse. The choice of songs reveals Dylan’s roots in a classical form of song construction (such as one might have heard on 1930s radio). In particular he is a past master of the middle eight, the bridging element of a song where the melody shifts dramatically, disorienting the listener before returning to the familiar verse/chorus structure. ‘Is Your Love in Vain?’, ‘True Love Tends to Forget’ and ‘I Want You’ are all great examples, used by McPherson for subtle dramatic effect (sometimes by getting a second person to sing the middle eight, as a form of commentary).

Shirley Henderson singing ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, via https://www.oldvictheatre.com

Girl from the North Country has been acclaimed as an instant classic, and the audience when I saw it certainly loved it, giving it a standing ovation, as well applauding several of the individual songs. However, I don’t know that it works entirely well. Firstly, McPherson is an able writer, but not as talented a wordsmith as Dylan. Frequently he is shown up by his collaborator, as we we wait impatiently for the actors to stop talking and to start singing. It is Dylan’s words that move us, but seldom his.

Secondly, although it runs for over two hours, the play has to fit in twenty songs, and even if some are only sung in part or blended with others, that still means that a significant amount of dramatic time is not spent on telling a story. That need not matter, except that the play has so many characters that there isn’t time or space enough to give them any depth. We feel for Marianne, torn between a rich elderly man who will provide her with protection but not affection, and the ne’er-do-well boxer (no prizes for guessing who she chooses). We are moved by the flawed but decent Nick, and his troubled wife Elizabeth, forever playing lasciviously with her dress and speaking with awkward frankness (presumably she is the titular character, though this isn’t clear). But the rest are too many, and only a few hours after seeing the play I struggle to remember their names or their fates. A smaller cast might have made for a sharper play.

But it is the songs that make this a classic, nonetheless. They do not just reveal the richness and appositeness of Dylan’s work. They also point to a kind a theatrical production with deep roots. The ballad opera of the eighteenth century was a type of play in which the story was interspersed with popular songs. Such ‘operas’ satirised the grander Italian opera of the period while offering a set of tunes that had instant audience recognition. The best-known example is John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), in which the tale of Newgate thieves and highwaymen is interwoven with popular folk tunes enriched with Gay’s inspired words.

The Beggar’s Opera (c.1728), by William Hogarth, via Wikipedia

Girl from the North Country is a kind of Beggar’s Opera, in theme as well as technique. Its cast of society’s drifters (like a rolling stone, of course), are all beggars, of one kind or another. Done down by the Depression, they find that the way to escape their confusion and express what lies in their hearts is through song. It is songs that, fleetingly, makes them special, because the feelings that they give air to are theirs too. The Beggar’s Opera and Girl from the North Country both work because they link the narrative of our lives (over which we have so little control) to the songs in our hearts. We all carry tunes in our heads. We all know those sung words that express for us what we mean more eloquently that we can ourselves. They form the elements of an infinite number of musicals, where fragments of song come fleetingly together while we pause briefly in some guest house along the way, and then move on. We understand who we are and where we are through stories, and so many of those stories are sung.

Put two songs together and they naturally form a connection; the skeleton of a narrative. Those West End musicals that string together hits perform something of this function, but their prime purpose is not to move but to present a concert with dramatic trimmings. Girl from the North Country looks deeper into the need that a song fulfils, much as John Gay understood a little under three hundred years ago – to form a tight connection to the heart.

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