An inspired ode to Bob Dylan, Girl from the North Country turns pop into a work of art

Playwright and director Conor McPherson is always dancing with Dylan but never stepping on his toes.

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On a gloomy Wednesday afternoon, I was part of a standing ovation for Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country, a play based around 20 Bob Dylan songs. Dylan fans can be a snobby bunch, and a part of me was secretly lining up a loftily superior reaction – a misreading here, a missed opportunity there, it isn’t this, it isn’t that.

All that melted away in the opening scene. Because whatever it isn’t, Girl from the North Country is pretty damned good. I left London’s Noël Coward Theatre feeling in equal measure entertained and exposed, while also wondering – not usually the case – why I don’t see plays more often.

Left to stand alone, the play would be quite plain. Set in Duluth, Minnesota (where Dylan was born), it explores the evasions and embarrassments of life in a Depression flop-house in 1934. Everyone has a questionable story to tell, especially to themselves.

On one level, the play allows some characters to remain two-dimensional. Skilfully so, it turns out, because the songs – brilliantly performed by an on-stage band – deepen the protagonists’ interior lives.

That is some trick, especially given the rich associations that we brought into the theatre. But the risk that the songs might contradict or undermine the story never materialises. There is enough space and distance between the play’s setting and the songs to allow a co-operative interaction. Perhaps that is why I sometimes experienced an entirely unexpected reaction to a song that I already knew very well – new light on old stones. Some of that can be attributed to the fragmentary texture of Dylan’s songs, their openness to different interpretations. But it also has a lot to do with McPherson’s masterly choice and sequencing. There’s the odd blockbuster, but mostly he gives us album tracks. A “greatest hits” approach would have got in the way of creating something new.

The most interesting aspect of the whole experience was the way in which McPherson carefully positioned his own work in relation to Dylan’s – respectful but not over-awed, understated but flinty, uncluttered but not prescriptive. McPherson smoothes the path for each song to command centre stage – almost like Sergio Busquets, unnoticed, setting up the field so that Lionel Messi can tap in yet another goal.

If you leave the show thinking, “Wow, Dylan glimpsed it all” – as I did – then the compliment is directed significantly at McPherson. By moving the setting away from Dylan, the play becomes about him in a more interesting way. The explicit narrative of a boarding house in the Depression becomes the opening into a deeper story: an exploration of the imaginative world of Bob Dylan. (McPherson has described the play as “trying to lead the audience into Dylan’s soul”.)

It reminded me of those old-new building projects, such as Carlo Scarpa’s museums in northern Italy, or Jonathan Tuckey’s contemporary “shadow houses” – the deftness with which the new touches the old, the challenge of creating something original while serving what already exists, the unflashy confidence to work with and around another talent, especially a greater one.

It must be so easy to get the balance wrong. If the playwright had tried to do too much himself, it would have been annoying to feel Dylan as a peripheral presence. If McPherson had done too little, the play would have been diminished as a mere tribute show. Instead, McPherson is always dancing with Dylan but never stepping on his toes. The intelligence of that relationship is the driving creativity of the play.

Some have criticised McPherson for not developing greater narrative urgency. It’s true that the effect is more an ensemble of character sketches, loosely woven into the central story. But here McPherson is staying close to the source material. Sketches of people in strange circumstances, at the heart of so many Dylan songs, serve as prompts to surprising avenues of introspection. I caught myself thinking, as I often do listening to Dylan, “How on earth has that made me think about this?”

How much of my emotional response to Girl from the North Country derived from Dylan, how much from McPherson? In one sense, it doesn’t matter at all. What matters is that there was an emotional response.

The play is also testimony to the enduring relevance of Dylan’s creative generation. Looking around the theatre, I saw two main age brackets – people roughly Dylan’s age, and those approximately my age. The music of the 1960s and 1970s has remarkable inter-generational reach. The pop music that means most to me is very similar to the music that means most to my parents. The soundtrack of their youth was, to a certain degree, also the soundtrack of mine. Their vinyl LPs in the living room transferred to the cassette in the car, but it was still often Dylan and his generation singing.

There are layers of nostalgia here: first the intermixed memories of different generations, second the more general feeling that pop music doesn’t quite exert the unifying influence it once did. Even if you’re sceptical about golden-ageism, there is no denying that some golden ages did happen. “In the Sixties, music was the mode, the most important form of communication,” Leonard Cohen reflected with a hint of regret in 1988.

There has been a kind of fossilisation of greatness in pop music, linked to changes in technology. Streaming is not only less social and more atomised, but it also deprives the songwriter of control of sequence and narrative, transferring them to the listener. But sometimes we don’t know what’s best for us. It requires a truly creative mind, as McPherson has shown us in a different context, to take a bunch of pop songs and turn them into a work of art. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article appears in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special