Like a favourite poem, Girl from the North Country resists adequate summary or description. And as with all great poetry, it is this ineffability which makes it great. This is no traditional juke-box musical; the play uses Bob Dylan’s music and lyrics as poetic parallels rather than straightforward narrative devices, leaving the audience searching the magical and meaning-rich spaces between music, poetry, and story. We feel that the songs are excavated from the characters’ subconscious lives, expressing truths which they themselves are only faintly aware of. Yet in Connor McPherson’s masterpiece, this subconscious realm of feeling exists, shimmering and raw, on the outside of everyday life with characters singing out these soul songs as the unwitting poets of their own universe.
Set in Duluth, Minnesota (Dylan’s birthplace) in the depths of winter 1934 and the Great Depression, we witness a series of vignettes and recollections as characters move through Nick Laine’s boarding house. The travellers gesture to old American archetypes, creating the rich tapestry of the play’s world: a Black boxing champion (‘Hurricane’) besieged by racism, a bible seller, a widower who is in love with Nick, a once wealthy couple (in and out of love) and their grown-up yet vulnerable son. All are strangers yet all dance together. All harmonise.
At the emotional core of the house is Elizabeth Laine, Nick’s wife, who is suffering with dementia and utters tender (and at times hilarious) truths with the honesty of a child, always asking Dylan’s most beautiful and difficult questions: ‘How does it feel? To be without a home, Like a complete unknown, Like a rolling stone.’ In the hands of Shirley Henderson, Elizabeth embodies the play’s spirit and pulse in her physicality. Bursting with pain, love, and sex she is never still; grinding her hips, beating a tambourine or moving her fingers through the air as if she might catch emotion there like dust in the stage lights.
Each character derives energy from loss (both past and future): lost relationships, lost youth, lost jobs, lost children, lost dreams, a lost sense of self. Sam Reid, playing Nick’s son Gene, carries all the lost love of the world in his oaky voice in ‘I Want You’ whilst Sheila Atim, playing adopted daughter Marianne, shows us the connectivity in yearning, the presence in absence in ‘Tight Connection to my Heart’. McPherson thus frames grief and the ongoing search for spiritual renewal as the kinetic essence of life.
This is a show about comings and goings, about life itself as a kind of dance—a dance of connectivity, collisions, and flows of energy—in the mundane movements of everyday people. At the heart of this dance is the family’s wooden kitchen table, unmoving, reliable (or so it is imagined). The final scene shows an image of the now splintered family reunited at the kitchen table, eating soup together, bathed in a puddle of light in an otherwise darkened stage. The children have gone, the boarders have moved on, but the architecture of feeling (built on memories) remains the same. Every character yearns for their spiritual home but they will not find it by staying still, nor by going backwards. It is through poetry and music that we see the movement of hope glimmering behind the stagnancy of despair. Nick has suffered trauma. He is drenched in pain and cynicism, he is brick-faced, his heart is closed: “You live too long, you see too much. It chips away at you …. How can you love someone who ain’t got a soul?” But just when the darkness threatens to overwhelm, McPherson gives us song and dance. New York Times critic Ben Brantley describes the band’s instruments, which are always on stage and sometimes played by the actors themselves, as ‘the instruments of redemption’. The omnipresence of death is continuously redeemed by music, heart, and joy. This show is revolutionary, and true to Dylan’s poetry, in its ability to show us the hope which resides in the darkest sorrow, the potential for truth.
It is appropriate that the show is opened and closed by the narration of the town doctor. Girl from the North Country shows theatre to be a spiritual medicine. It demonstrates that there is shared humanity in every story, however dark or supposedly irredeemable. Our ability to connect with each other through honesty and vulnerability will be our saviour, and it is the work of all great theatre to offer us this rare communion. Doctor Walker tells us at the beginning of the show: “As we know, pain comes in all kinds .… Physical, spiritual, indescribable.”
Now, more than ever, we must remember the power of art and fight for the spiritual health of our community. More song, more dance, more poetry, more getting back to feeling.