Girl from the North Country’s genesis is an interesting one: four years ago the playwright Conor McPherson, famous worldwide for The Weir, was asked by Bob Dylan’s management to think about a theatre show involving Dylan’s songs.
At first his reaction was to dismiss the idea as almost impracticable, but after a few weeks an outline of Girl from the North Country was born, and approved by the Nobel Prizewinner with authorization to choose any songs to use from Dylan’s entire discography. The result is a show of great poetry with a haunting intensity that stays with the audience.
Set in a decaying guesthouse in Dylan’s hometown, Duluth, in Minnesota during the end of a cold autumn in 1934, Girl from the North Country brings on stage the voices of a cursed Spoon River at the time of the Great Depression, of hopeless souls yearning for an elsewhere that they are struggling to figure out.
Conor McPherson, who is also the director – and thanks to excellent work by Rae Smith, designer and Mark Henderson, lighting – shapes a visually flawless experience where an overwhelming sense of despair and human desolation is created by brilliantly mixing together reminiscences of Hopper and of dusty old Hollywood films. And Hollywood, land of dreams, is recalled several times in the show in the form of Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, apparently shown at the local cinema.
And then there are Bob Dylan’s songs to complete the weird spell. Rearranged and relocated in a different era, they transfix themselves into timeless lullabies; from the romantic tension of I Want You, to the emotionally powerful and choral Hurricane to the astonishing intensity of Like a Rolling Stone, they knot themselves to the narration. And the result is neither a musical nor a play, but something unique, cathartic and experiential.
A perfectly assembled cast delivers what might be considered a legendary ensemble performance. Led by a superb Ciarán Hinds as Nick Lane – the gigantic owner of the Guesthouse – Girl from the North Country counts on some of the finest actors, such as Ron Cook, Shirley Henderson and Bronagh Gallagher.
Cook’s portrayal of the heartily manly Doctor Walker, the narrator, engages the audience in a meta-theatrical dialogue from beginning to end, charming everyone on stage and in the stalls with an old fashioned, seemingly benevolent attitude; Gallagher’s Mrs Burke is a revelation from her first appearance, red-dressed with platinum blonde hair she delivers a terrific and emotional performance of anger, disillusion and sorrow.
But the true highlight of the production is Shirley Henderson’s performance as Elizabeth Laine, a broken and mentally ill woman, still looking like a child, whose mind seems to be lost in another world. Touching and real, she shines with a performance of great tenderness, strength and, in the end, understanding.
Closer to an experience than a night at the theatre, Girl from the North Country is one of those very rare shows that can be considered an instant classic and a success. Beware – its ghosts will haunt you long after the curtain call, but take that risk as, seriously, it’s unmissable.