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An interview with Girl From The North Country director Conor McPherson

Fiona Mountford meets writer and director Conor McPherson to tell us more about Girl From The North Country, an uplifting and universal story that boldly reimagines the legendary songs of Bob Dylan.

On a shelf behind the desk in Conor McPherson’s agreeably cluttered Dublin office stands a row of CDs. The Beatles are in there, as are Black Sabbath and the Waterboys, but what catches the eye is a large gift box of Bob Dylan albums. It was this package, containing more than 60 discs, that Dylan’s management company sent McPherson for reference when the multi award-winning Irish writer/director came on board for the project that would become Girl from the North Country.

It was in the summer of 2017 that this gentle masterpiece, an elegiac and powerful study of family and poverty, love and loss, opened at London’s Old Vic Theatre. The acclaim was instantaneous; in my own five-star review for the London Evening Standard, I hymned the show as ‘beguiling, soulful and quietly, exquisitely heart-breaking’. It is set in a down-on-its-luck boarding-house in Dylan’s actual home-town of Duluth, Minnesota in 1934, when the Great Depression is biting hard.

The stories of this ensemble of drifters and dreamers are elegantly intertwined with more than 20 songs from the unrivalled oeuvre of Bob Dylan. It makes for a potent cocktail that has wowed audiences both nationally and internationally, with productions on Broadway, in Canada and Australia.

In McPherson’s opinion, the show’s appeal is simple. It is the ‘universality of Dylan’s music, which is loved all over the world. He manages to distil his subjective experience into something people relate to. It has the strange, odd contrariness of people’s real thoughts and it’s a language which allows us to transcend our normal way of thinking’.

McPherson’s aim was clear, he says. ‘We try and wrap our story around his music. Often I think of them as parables from the Bible in a way, all the little stories that are in the show. They are on a simple, human level, rather than being big political statements. It’s Dylan’s artistry that transforms it all into something meaningful’.

McPherson, known for haunting dramas such as The Weir and Port Authority, had never directed a musical prior to this and found himself revelling in the novel experience. ‘With a straight play, you have to make it work all the way through with just the people speaking. With a musical, someone says, ‘Would you like a blast of oxygen to give us all a break?’ and you go, ‘Yes, I would actually like that very much!’

Experience has taught McPherson that the first preview of a show, its debut in front of a paying audience, is of paramount importance in terms of future prospects. At the Old Vic, he ran backstage in that first interval to avoid audience chatter but found a tannoy system that relayed the ‘good energy, the alive buzz, like a hive of bees’ from inside the auditorium. ‘I knew then that we were going to be alright’, he says happily.

McPherson is being overly modest when he ascribes the success of the show solely to the music, as it is his setting and story that make for a transcendent combination. His vision, for a ‘Eugene O’Neill kind of idea’, came to him while he was walking beside the sea where he lives; it was a concept with which Bob Dylan was instantly enamoured. The Depression era is a time that continues to resonate with us, McPherson says. ‘We all wonder how we would cope when the chips are down, because that’s who we really are. When all the distractions of modern life are stripped away, people think, ‘How strong am I?’ The truth is that humans are very resilient and we don’t need a lot of what we think we need. That’s a good thing to know’.

It’s not hard to spot the similarities between this and the strange lockdown times from which we have recently emerged. How did McPherson fare? ‘I think it depends what age you were when lockdown happened’, he says. ‘I’m 50 now and I am old enough to know that I have the resourcefulness to get through something. Playwriting is a very up and down career, so I think I have discovered that although life is short, we take the long view. You have to’. When not mulling on the meaning of life, McPherson enjoyed getting stuck into Maths homeschooling with his daughter.

McPherson abounds with hopes for the 2022 tour, into which he has added another two songs (‘I think we’re at our limit now!’) His aim has been to pack the cast with performers who ‘move the air when they come on’ and wants the audience to take away with them ‘an emotional catharsis, a feeling of the mystery of life as they understand it’.

5 -10 December

Wales Millennium Centre

Bute Place, Cardiff CF10 5AL

029 2063 6464

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