Ten years ago, when the Perth Theater was staging Conor McPherson’s supernatural drama The Seafarer, the playwright told me about his need to identify with his characters. The Dublin-born writer is famous for plays such as The Weir, with its ghostly bar shops, and St Nicholas, first performed by Brian Cox, about an alcoholic theater critic who moves in with a gang of vampires.
It would be misleading to suggest that his plays are autobiographical, but they come from a personal place, he told me. He had tried writing about characters he had no connection to and found that they didn’t “zoom” in a way that happens when “you write about the dirtiest, darkest parts of your psyche”.
“That’s what unlocks a communication with an audience,” he said.
Catching up with him again all these years later, I was intrigued how he connected to the characters of Girl From the North Country. That’s partly because this musical is set in the heartland of the United States during the Great Depression of the 1930s. And partly because it’s inspired by the songs of Bob Dylan. Was it easy for him to connect to a physical and artistic landscape that was not his?
“There’s a lot of personal stuff in the play and I was able to get inside the characters like I normally would,” he says. “Obviously I don’t live in 30s America, but there was enough of a connection. But what was also helpful was having music to add that deeper layer of emotion. is almost like cheating, because normally playwrights try to achieve an emotional connection or a cathartic release, but when you introduce music, it adds rocket fuel.”
The show looks like the perfect order. Dylan’s management took the first step, approaching McPherson with the idea of writing a piece that would be inspired by the musician’s songbook. Beyond that, there were no parameters. He was free to tell the story he wanted and to use the songs that would help him do so. It wouldn’t be a jukebox musical, aimed at a hungry audience demanding the hits, but a stand-alone play.
“Initially, all these fears were definitely there about things that would keep me from being authentic,” he says. “It wasn’t until I had the idea to put this thing in the 1930s, before Bob Dylan was born, that it freed him from his personal story. Suddenly I could do whatever I wanted .Because they had given me total freedom – unconstrained whatsoever – it was like having a composer in the room who could just give you whatever you wanted and ask nothing of you.”
He was, indeed, typically Dylan, a musician who forged his own path, followed his own creative instincts and never flattered anyone else. “I would put him in that league as those brilliant mystery writers like James Joyce and WB Yeats who confuse you, set you back, make you rethink things,” says McPherson, who also directs. “Being asked to do the show was very unexpected but also very much in line with the way he rides. He just seemed to trust his instincts and that was it.”
Naturally, Dylan’s instincts were good. When it opened in London, Girl From the North Country garnered five-star reviews. The Guardian called it a “remarkable fusion of text and music”.
Not being a musical theater aficionado, McPherson took the show in the direction he felt was right. He dove deep into Dylan’s canon, selecting songs for their mood and poetry, less than for their narrative drive. The world he envisioned was one of economic stress, his characters dealing with poverty, blackmail and deception, the songs expressing their private frustrations.
“I had to explore all of Bob Dylan’s work, which I had never done before,” he says. “There are a lot of things that his hardcore fans would consider detours. One of them is his born-again Christian phase in the late 70s and early 80s, which I found really inspiring. You’re looking at someone who’s clearly caught fire and puts a tremendous amount of energy into their work. We ended up with a lot of these songs, which you didn’t expect, but the show is a personal artistic response rather than a receipt.
He adds, “A lot of his songs are subjective and oblique, a series of images that seem disconnected. For us in a drama to have a song that can talk about anything is incredibly powerful because it opens up the whole show. It’s doesn’t push him forward in a linear narrative, it makes him deep and takes him into a dreamlike landscape of the characters’ inner lives.
And what about Dylan himself? The famous gnomic musician let McPherson continue the work and even today the two have never met. But he came to see Girl From the North Country at the Public Theater in New York and shared his excitement with the cast. “He loved it,” McPherson says. “He was really surprised by the song choices. There’s a song called True Love Tends To Forget from his album Street Legal and he said to the cast, ‘Well, what do you know , it turns out to be a good song.’ “
Girl From the North Country is at the Theater Royal, Glasgow, September 13-17; Edinburgh Theatre, 18-22 October; His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 21-25 February