Girl from the North Country - Sara Wheeler

I loved this play – and I don’t even like Bob Dylan. It’s written and directed by Conor McPherson (best known for The Weir),  and the text is wrapped around Dylan songs. McPherson calls the work, ‘a conversation between the songs and the story’. And so it is.

The action is set in Dylan’s birthplace, Duluth, Minnesota, but in the 30s, and the agonies of the Depression cling to every line.  A small orchestra sits at the back of the stage, playing only instruments available in the thirties. The cast of twenty all danced and sang.

It seems to me that McPherson is a genius. ‘I was looking’, he says about Girl from the North Country’, ‘for songs that had a verse, a bridge, a chorus, a middle eight, all that stuff that gives the performers the chance to lean into something emotionally and go deeper and deeper into the music.’  Apparently he directed with a guitar in his hands.

The standout performance came from Shirley Henderson, the properly bonkers wife of Ciarán Hinds, playing Nick Laine, a failed man who runs a guesthouse and is on the verge of going bankrupt (which he does, by play’s end).  Henderson is 52 but looks 15 on stage – vulnerable, tortured, a prisoner of her own imagination. But can she sing. One of her numbers was ‘Like  a Rolling Stone’ (from, of course, Highway 41 Revisited).  I’ll never forget it.

Playwrights should be mining albums from other artists to get more from this seam. One can reel off countless bands who should be considered. The concept is perfect – in the right hands.

The extraordinary thing – given the artist’s reputation – is that the idea of a musical based on this material came from God himself. McPherson initially dismissed the idea, then came round to it, and when he contacted Dylan’s people again, they sent 40 albums round and said, ‘Use what you like’. The playwright asked Dylan’s manager if Bob wanted to attend rehearsals, and got  the reply, ‘I think you’re better off not having Bob in the room’.