Exploring the greatest new and classic plays


Photo © Marc Brenner

Girl from the North Country – Footnotes

Aug 2, 2021 | Footnotes | 0 comments

Some further brief thoughts on Elizabeth’s ability to tell the truth as she sees it, on the echoes of Chekhov in Conor’s play, and the melding of the songs and the play.

Elizabeth the truth-teller
Elizabeth suffers from early onset dementia. It is the nature of the disease that her powers of perception vary and it is difficult to determine how clear her mind is or what she will say at any given time. Another feature is that the disease seems to reduce the learned inhibition to say whatever one is thinking regardless of social niceties or taboos. Elizabeth is unrestrained in describing what she sees and in fact in so doing she has the capacity to pinpoint the truths that others are leaving unsaid. She senses, for example, that the travelling Bible salesman, Reverend Marlow is “a louse”, and challenges Mr Perry to “find someone your own age you old goat” when he is in pursuit of Marianne.

Given that she sits relatively silent and inactive most of the time, we also underestimate her powers of observation and understanding, so are somewhat surprised when she calls out Nick on his relationship with Mrs Neilson, “your little lady woman up in your attic”. And more poignantly when in the end she intervenes to stop Nick from giving up his life and vows to stay with him despite her not loving him the way he wants. Elizabeth is much more than just the madwoman in the corner. She’s a truth-teller.

Shirley Henderson as Elizabeth at The Old Vic
Photo: Manuel Harlan


Jim Norton (Mr Perry) and Sheila Atim (Marianne)
at the Old Vic
Photo: Manuel Harlan

We talked in the podcast about how Conor’s play has some of the elements of Chekhov’s drama. It certainly has a Chekhovian setting, with an ensemble of characters revolving around the boarding house, as they do in the great Russian estates, each with their own stories of hope, heartbreak, tragedy, and stoic suffering. Like Chekhov, despite the characters’ obvious failings and flaws, most are granted some dignity in their suffering. It may not always excuse their behaviour or character, but at least we understand its source and recognise some of our own weaknesses.

One of Chekhov’s great strengths is the depth of focus he gives to even the minor characters, as Conor does here. Each of them is given a story that reveals the heart of their emotional identity. The son Gene, who can’t bring himself to declare the truth of his love and need for Kate, and his disappointment for failing to make more of himself. The Burkes,  who know but cannot admit the reality of their financial and emotional desolation. And even Mr Perry, for example, who we mostly feel a sort of disgust for because of his inappropriate pursuit of Marianne, but there is a moment when he speaks of how hard it is to grow old alone, with only the memories of the warmth of being with someone else. We feel some degree of empathy for his desire and sadness.  I think Conor may have said that all modern playwrights follow in the footsteps of Chekhov, and I mean it is as a compliment to him that his play does so.


The songs and the play
Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright, and musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The resulting play with music is a distinctive and rich form, combining all of the effects and power of live drama: dialogue, character, story, staging, with the lyrics and melodies of the music. I was particularly interested in asking Conor how he came to select and meld the Dylan songs that he chose with the play, as he wrote it. His answer suggested that his choices were largely led by instinct. However I couldn’t resist myself trying to read connections between the songs and specific characters or themes of the play.

Some of the songs seem to have a direct connection: the story of the black boxer Reuben Carter in Hurricane has its obvious parallel with the character of Joe Scott, who is also on the run from the law. Mostly however the songs suggest a feeling or meaning that could apply to any of the characters – their hopes for love or honour – or they may reflect the mood and challenges of the times they live in. The lament: “How does it feel … to be without a home… having to scrounge for your next meal”, for example, from Like a Rolling Stone speaks for any of the itinerant characters drifting from one place to another. The plaintive gospel of Slow Train suggests that change in America is coming, albeit too slowly, especially in the South where racial laws are still outdated.  And of course, many of the songs intone the ache of love lost or misplaced, which so many of the characters feel.

It was a huge privilege to talk with Conor about his magical creation. As he said, the theatre can be a spiritual place, like a church, and the music in the play certainly magnifies the drama in the way that music in a church can. With Conor’s assistance I was all the more grateful to be able to feature a few excerpts from the music in the podcast.





The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays recommended by our Guests
You might also be interested in …
080 – Long Day’s Journey into Night, by Eugene O’Neill

080 – Long Day’s Journey into Night, by Eugene O’Neill

Eugene O’Neill wrote his autobiographical magnum opus, Long Day’s Journey into Night, in 1941, but because of the personal revelations it contained he gave explicit instructions that it was not to be published until 25 years after his death and that it should never be staged. In the event his widow allowed both to occur in 1956, only three years after his death, when the play won O’Neill his fourth Pulitzer prize.

As we record this episode, a powerful new production of the play is playing in London, with Brian Cox and Patricia Clarkson heading the cast. I am delighted and privileged to talk with the production’s director, Jeremy Herrin, about O’Neill’s monumental play.

Photo by Johan Persson.

079 – The Hills of California, by Jez Butterworth

079 – The Hills of California, by Jez Butterworth

A new Jez Butterworth play is a theatrical event. The Hills of California is currently running at the Harold Pinter theare in London’s West End, directed by Sam Mendes. Do not be misled by the title, however, we are not in sunny California, but in the back streets of Blackpool, where four daughters come together to say goodbye to their dying mother. The play is a portrait of lost dreams, of deeply ingrained patterns of love and hurt within a family, and of suppressed and mutable memories.

I’m joined to explore this major new work by Sean McEvoy, author of Class, Culture and Tragedy in the Plays of Jez Butterworth.

078 – The Lover and The Collection, by Harold Pinter

078 – The Lover and The Collection, by Harold Pinter

We have a double-bill in this episode of two short plays written by Harold Pinter in the early 1960s: The Lover and The Collection, both of which explore sexual compulsion and the manipulation of truth within marriage or partnerships. As we record this episode a new production of both plays is playing at the Theatre Royal in Bath, directed by Lindsay Posner.

I’m delighted to welcome Lindsay back to the podcast to talk about these two Pinter gems.

Claudie Blakley and David Morrissey in The Lover
Photo by Nobby Clark

Recent Posts
The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

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.

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

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