January 18, 2022

Theatre

‘Girl from the North Country’

By Steve Dow
Image of Lisa McCune, Zahra Newman and Peter Carroll appearing on stage in Girl from the North Country. Image © Daniel Boud.

Lisa McCune, Zahra Newman and Peter Carroll appear on stage in Girl from the North Country. Image © Daniel Boud.

Weaving Bob Dylan songs into a story of Depression-era hardship, Conor McPherson’s musical speaks to the broken America of today

 

Lisa McCune is on stage, dressed in a headscarf, sunglasses, long dowdy dress and boots. She is playing Elizabeth Laine, the fifty-something wife of a Depression-era boarding house owner in Duluth, Minnesota, in Midwest America, but her look conjures memories of another famous eccentric shut-in: the one-time socialite Little Edie from the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens.

Elizabeth is often emotionally absent even while she is physically present on stage for most of Girl from the North Country, Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s brilliantly bleak musical tale set in the birthplace of troubadour singer-songwriter Bob Dylan and utilising 22 of Dylan’s songs. Suffering from an unstated illness (probably early-onset dementia, which was beyond the diagnostic vocabulary of 1934), her babbling delivers uncomfortable truths about the grifters and fellow eccentrics surrounding her.

Elizabeth’s unfiltered dialogue is both comedic and poignant. “We lost a baby girl,” she tells the room, just as a Duluth local, Mr Perry (Peter Carroll), comes in bearing flowers. Elizabeth free-associates about a supposed liaison she had with Perry one time at the Cook County Fair, much to the embarrassment of her husband, Nick (Peter Kowitz), who is present as she speaks.

“Can you remember?” Elizabeth tells the hapless Perry, with McCune and Carroll delivering the moment’s awkwardness with perfect comic timing. “The lights? And how dark it was afterwards walking home together and what you said to me? Begging to touch it.” Nick tries to shut her down, but Elizabeth presses on: “And I said, ‘Why, it’s just a tiny Vienna sausage!’”

Elizabeth, it transpires, knows full well that Nick himself is involved in a long-standing affair, but she seems unfussed by the knowledge. Even as the odds are stacked against these characters, with Nick facing foreclosure on the boarding house and death unexpectedly coming knocking for others, human spirits are resuscitated by humour and the communal joy of music.

Dylan’s tracks – given fresh arrangements with instruments appropriate to the era, such as piano, double bass, acoustic guitar, drums, harmonica, fiddle and harmonium – never interfere with the grit and lyricism of the narrative. Rather the music acts as a reservoir of desperately needed hope when life only serves us despair.

Creator, writer and director Conor McPherson was an inspired choice for the task of setting Dylan’s music within a stage narrative. He grew up a Dylan fan in 1970s and ’80s Dublin – though he was then unaware of the full extent of Dylan’s output – and he comes with a long CV of his own works populated by malevolent and bizarre misfits with their own distinct musical rhythms and cadences.

In this all-Australian cast production, following earlier iterations on Broadway and the West End, McPherson and associate director Kate Budgen have again cast actors who can sing, rather than performers who are primarily singers – and that guiding criteria pays off.

Zahra Newman as the pregnant Marianne Laine, Elizabeth and Nick’s adopted daughter, delivers a stellar slowed-down version of Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anyone Seen My Love), with the ensemble’s harmonies leavening the gospel-like impact. McCune likewise acquits an emotionally affecting Like A Rolling Stone, bursting out of Elizabeth’s sealed world: “How does it feel / To be on your own / With no direction home.”

There are strong male singing voices too, notably the charismatic UK-born Callum Francis, who played Lola on stage in Kinky Boots, here playing Joe Scott, a “rising young man of the pugilistic arts”, as Mr Burke (Greg Stone) excitedly puts it. Joe is a boxer whose imprisonment echoes one of Dylan’s overtly political songs, about the black boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was wrongfully convicted of murder. Francis as Joe Scott delivers a rousing rendition of Dylan’s 1976 hit Hurricane, lifted to glorious heights by the ensemble chorus.

But we also learn of the murderous race relations of 20th-century middle America: opium-addicted Dr Walker (Terence Crawford) recites the true story of three African-American circus workers dragged from a jail, where they were suspects in an assault case, to be lynched “on the corner of 1st Street for a crime they hadn’t committed”. He names the victims: Isaac McGhie, Elmer Jackson and Elias Clayton.

The broken nation depicted in Girl from the North Country shows people who are struggling to connect, battling forces over which they have little or no control. In that sense, 1934 Duluth speaks to the United States in 2022, when politics and pandemic threaten to rip the nation apart. This is a musical that speaks to the tumult of America today, and its stumbling quest for unity and peace.

 

Girl from the North Country plays the Theatre Royal in Sydney until February 27; Her Majesty’s Theatre in Adelaide from March 25 to April 10; and the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne from April 29 to May 29. Dates in more Australian cities are still to be announced.

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley arts journalism award recipient.

@dowsteve

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