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.
Conor recommended The Wexford Trilogy by Billy Roche.
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.
Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull was a disaster on its opening night in St Petersburg in 1896. The unsettling blend of comedy and pathos that confused the first critics and audience were subsequently recognised as seminal in the evolution of modern drama.
I’m delighted to welcome back playwright and professor, Dan Rebellato, to talk about Chekhov and his timeless play.
Patrick Marber’s play Closer depicts a merry-go-round of metropolitan relationships powered by sex and betrayal. Its clever and candid dissection of the destructive power of sexual desire hit a contemporary nerve when it premiered in 1997.
Clare Lizzimore, director of a new production at the Lyric Hammersmith, joins me to explore how the play’s unflinching sexual politics has aged twenty-five years later.
Jez Butterworth’s play Jersualem is one of the landmark plays of the 21st century, acclaimed for both its lyrical and elusive text exploring English identity, and for its electrifying theatrical production. The once-in-a lifetime performance is happily being repeated with the current West End revival, and it seems fitting that our 50th episode be devoted to this remarkable play. I’m joined by David Ian Rabey, Emeritus Professor at Aberystwyth University and author of The Theatre and Films of Jez Butterworth.