028 – Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan
Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright and musician and song writer Bob Dylan. In fact it was a silent collaboration of sorts, as Dylan granted McPherson carte blanche to create his play around his music without any direction or constraints. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to find hope or security in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting spiritual experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play, directed by McPherson, opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, including acclaim such as: “Not very often, a piece of theatre comes along that radiates an ineffable magic.” ; “Beguiling and soulful and quietly, exquisitely, heartbreaking. This is, in short, a very special piece of theatre.”
The Old Vic production was followed by two West End runs and transfers to off-Broadway and Broadway in New York. It garnered many award nominations here and in America, winning several, although I can’t help but think it would have swept the board if it fit more easily into the conventional award categories of play or musical. But as the reviews suggest, it is something very special, which I can personally attest to because I’m happy to confess that Girl from the North Country moved me to tears both times that I saw it.
So this is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production. You can listen to the whole album on Spotify by following this link to the London production.
Note: this episode contains a couple of instances of strong language (among all of its beauty!).
Conor McPherson is from Dublin and began writing plays as a member of the University of Dublin drama society. His early plays include St Nicholas, Shining City, The Seafarer, and The Weir, which opened at the Royal Court before transferring to the West End of London and Broadway, winning the Olivier Award for Best New Play for 1999. It was produced again in the West End in 2013. In 2011 the National Theatre in London premiered his play The Veil, which marked his first foray into period drama and was greeted by critical acclaim. More recently, following Girl from the North Country, Conor’s wonderfully lucid adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya was staged in the West End, and broadcast on BBC in December 2020, and on PBS in America in the Spring of 2021. Conor’s adaptation was the inspiration for our episode on Uncle Vanya, in which we talked with Nick Hern the publisher of his version of the play. Click here to listen to that episode.
The Footnotes to our episode on Girl from the North Country include brief thoughts on Elizabeth’s ability to see and say the truth, as well as more on the echoes of Chekhov in Conor’s play.
Tom Stoppard’s ambitious new play Leopoldstadt is a sweeping work of history and ideas which charts the diaspora and decline of an Austrian Jewish family through the convulsive events of the first half of the twentieth century. It addresses profound moral questions of identity, memory and prejudice that are insistently relevant in our time. It is not only a towering intellectual achievement, it is also very personally poignant because it is based partly on Stoppard’s own remarkable family history.
Leopoldstadt opened in the West End in January 2020, only to be closed prematurely by the pandemic a few weeks later. Happily it has returned to the London stage this Autumn, and I am privileged and delighted to talk in this episode with the director of the London productions, playwright Patrick Marber.
Footnotes Volume 3 is a recording of the facts and observations that we’ve published on the website to supplement the plays that we’ve covered in episodes 24-31. A smorgasbord of trivia and analysis ranging from Greek Tragedy to the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte , through the music of Bob Dylan, the filming of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone during lockdown, and the theatrical installations of Samuel Beckett.
A compendium of dramatic intelligence!
Samuel Beckett’s third great dramatic masterpiece Happy Days is a timeless exploration of existential threat and personal survival. It’s central image of Winnie buried in a mound of scorched earth also speaks to our own time when many have endured enforced confinement in a world struck by collective disaster.
Irish actress and Beckett scholar Lisa Dwan, fresh from her triumphant performance as Winnie at the Riverside Studios in London, joins us to share her unique experience of playing Beckett and this majestic play.
Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country …