Tuesday 23 January 2018

Girl from the North Country

Noel Coward Theatre, London
20th January 2018, matinee

‘May you have a strong foundation
 when the winds of changes shift’

Just as the awarding of the 2016 Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan (‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’) pushed the boundaries of genre and got many a critic questioning ‘what is literature?’, Conor McPherson’s latest creation similarly defies all conventional classification. Is Girl from the North Country a play with music, a (whisper it…) jukebox musical, a revue, a Bob Dylan tribute show? The truth is, McPherson’s show is a genre all in itself. A moody tableau of the hardships of a specific time and place, while also offering prospective and retrospective truths regarding what was and always will be, this play juxtaposes the soul of folk music and its cross-generational timelessness with a searing sense of both epiphany and elusiveness.

Set in a Minnesota boarding house during the depression we are shown both arching and intimate insights into the lives of its residents. Nick Laine (Ciarán Hinds), the boarding house proprietor struggles with mounting debts and looking after his wife, Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson), who suffers from dementia. Their son, Gene (Sam Reid), is an aspiring writer who has succumbed to alcoholism while their adopted daughter, Marianne (Sheila Atim), is pregnant and the father is (literally) nowhere to be seen. House regulars include the Burkes who may or may not be on the run from a tragic past and Nick’s lover and confidant, Mrs Neilsen (Debbie Kurup). When two strangers appear in the dead of night the residents of this small community face monumental decisions regarding love, life, death and fortune.

The play is not particularly plot-led, McPherson has instead collated a series of interlinking vignettes, united by the boarding house/communal setting and the themes of transience, regret and hope, all interspersed with Dylan’s elucidating music. Due to this unusual structure the piece could seem sketchy; the multitude of characters meaning that we are denied any one person’s full story – and I admit that initially I wasn’t sure how it would all hold together as a cohesive whole - but after a while McPherson’s vision gets under the skin, and we realise that it is sometimes what is left unsaid, the stories that are untold, that are so evocative of the human experience. Marianne’s lyrical description of her unborn baby’s conception is mythical and elemental; when she speaks of the unseen ‘man’ coming to her and smelling of stone/water/earth, the imagery is so potent that I could sense the recollection along with her. Meanwhile, the heartstopping intimacy and stillness of Gene’s duet, ‘I Want You’, with his would-be flame, Katherine (Claudia Jolly), captures all the tragedy and yearning mournfulness of the deadbeat’s inertia.

McPherson peppers the play with the kind of snapshots and achingly insightful gems one traditionally associates with short stories (surely it’s no coincidence that Gene is emphatically a short story writer). The play is a series of minute but life-altering epiphanies, the mundanities of the everyday are pushed and pulled and the result is a type of contact which Nadine Gordimer famously termed ‘the flash of fireflies’. Short stories emphasise the ephemeral spark, they can be creeping and subtle, yet each of McPherson’s characters has their own ‘flash’ moment, whether it be Elizabeth’s moments of lucidity in which she offers nuggets of wisdom amid the banalities, or the varying realisations that they cannot carry on living the way they do. For better or worse, by the end every character has been touched by change.

This is the perfect balance to the abiding essence of folk music. Timeless and universal, Dylan’s music strikes a chord with so many because we all feel he speaks to us, for us, encapsulating what is so often thought of as inexpressible with a simplicity that is able to articulate the vagaries of life in a strikingly obvious manner. The struggles of the boarding house residents may be played out upon the backdrop of the great depression, yet the sentiment is eternal. Hence, the play’s brilliance lies in the way it inhabits an elusive and inconstant space, beautifully realised by designer Rae Smith’s use of projections and translucent gauze flats. An air of magic realism pervades in the way characters step out of their surroundings to serenade the audience, in some instances from beyond the grave. Poised between transience and permanence, the personal and the universal, time and space, Girl from the North Country epitomises the unique adversity of the human soul; while we may wish to stay ‘Forever Young’ the real tragedy is that this can never be so. This paradox is humourously and touchingly proposed when Marianne’s decrepit wannabe suitor, Mr Perry (Karl Johnson), confesses that ‘no one means to get old’.

Shirley Henderson embodies Elizabeth completely. Childlike, sagacious, frail and frenetic, she delivers her lines with humour, guts and tenderness. Ciarán Hinds brings a gravelly tenacity to Nick, we can sense a fragility behind his gruffness. Arinzé Kene is a soulful livewire as boxer and absconder, Joe, while Sheila Atim is utterly bewitching as Marianne. Not only blessed with a crystalline voice which ensures her songs are amongst some of the highlights, Atim’s mature, understated performance is mightily impressive.

Finally, I must praise Simon Hale for his haunting orchestrations of Dylan’s classics. The songs blend together seamlessly, while arrangements and incorporation of harmonies highlight not only what a masterful poet Dylan is, but how melodic and instinctive his music is.

I had a tear in my eye on more than one occasion and the sheer gorgeousness of the songs has me craving the cast recording already. A beguiling and truly indefinable piece of theatre, Girl from the North Country is a haunting elegy to the pains, injustices, losses and un/fulfilled hopes of the human spirit.

Girl from the North Country plays at the Noel Coward theatre until 24th March.
Sheila Atim and Shirley Henderson. Credit: Manuel Harlan

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