There's a lot going on in Girl from the North Country, Conor McPherson's play with songs by Bob Dylan that's running through the first week of October at the Old Vic in London. Set in a boarding house in Hibbing, Minnesota during the Great Depression, the piece features lost souls from various racial and economic backgrounds, who all have in common a restless, gnawing sense of spiritual unease. Among them are bighearted criminals, hypocritical men of the cloth, women unmoored from reality, estranged and embittered husbands, damaged children. The characters find themselves thrown together in a time and place during which they experience a wide range of intense emotions, from the purest joy to the most intense despair.
In brief, then, all the characters in Girl from the North Country are absolutely typical of your average Dylan song or McPherson play.
The result is a show that is consistently interesting, sometimes beautiful to look at, and more frequently positively transcendent to listen to--but that ultimately doesn't congeal. This is not, ironically, due to the disjunct conception of the piece, which allows songs, characters, and plot all kinds of disruptions. The fact that actors frequently break character to sing Dylan songs--sometimes intertwined snippets of many of them--that only vaguely reflect on the narrative or the shifting moods of the piece struck me, in fact, as a particular strength. This is no fluffy jukebox musical, with numbers shoehorned into a contrived plot for the sake of familiarity. I know the whole "Dylan's lyrics are poetry" drill is kind of old, but it's also kind of right, and the lyrics, song fragments, and melodic motifs McPherson has chosen from the canon of Dylan almost always nail the landing. Gorgeously harmonized and soulfully sung arrangements of some old favorites and many lesser-known works serve as constant reminders of what a masterful songwriter the man is, and what stunning range he has. His songs are lonesome and playful and erotic and haunting and desperate, and sometimes all those things at once. I hope very much for a recording of Girl, and if there isn't one, I'm just going to have to continue to stream Dylan's albums obsessively for a while.
What causes this piece the most trouble is far simpler stuff. For one, its overstuffed story involves too many characters, and it tries too hard to tie their stories to any number of bigger themes: the supernatural, the struggle for survival in difficult times, the connection between sociopolitical conflict and the natural world, good and evil, love and obligation and loss, the Great Depression, American race relations, industrialism.
I don't mean to imply that all these various threads aren't engaging. They almost all are, which I imagine sort of makes the notion of heavy editing very difficult. But good lord, the drama: Nick, the boardinghouse owner, is hemorrhaging money. His wife has dementia, their grown son is a drunk posing as a writer, and their grown adopted daughter, who is black, rarely goes out in public because of racism. She has become pregnant, maybe by a man, maybe by a spirit, or maybe it's a false pregnancy. The local doctor who checks on her and her demented mother might be deeply depressed and might have a morphine addiction. A widow at the boardinghouse is purportedly coming into money, and is also having a longtime affair with Nick. A wealthy couple and their intellectually disabled son stop in for a few days and their story is both devastatingly sad and much too skeletal to support such sorrow. A pair of escaped convicts who Are Not What They Seem show up in the dead of night and do things that are surprisingly good or surprisingly bad, depending on which guy we're talking about. It's no wonder that these stories, which all have enormous potential, are hurriedly resolved in ways that feel forced and unsatisfying as the piece nears its end.
Then there's the direction, which is also by McPherson. It's hardly terrible, but he might have done well to bring in some help. While often beautiful to look at, there's too often some kind of business going on when there doesn't need to be: musicians and singers wander slowly across the stage in the shadows when they could just as easily stand still; big set pieces constantly fly in or out during musical numbers that would easily hold the audience's rapt attention were they static. It's kind of like the entire show has no idea what to do with its hands.
I hope, though, that this is not the only production of Girl from the North Country, which would do well with some editing and some workshopping. I wouldn't mind catching it again should it make it to New York (or, hell, the upper midwest). And perhaps it will: Woody Harrelson was in the audience the night I was there, so who knows? Maybe he'll take one of the roles, demand that some of the others be pared back, and insist that McPherson stop moving the scenery around all the time. I'd love a closer look at more nuanced characters--especially played by actors who can wail as well as this cast can on those tasty, soaring arrangements.