The Marlowe
An interview with Girl From The North Country director Conor McPherson

An interview with Girl From The North Country director Conor McPherson

Next month the double Olivier and Tony Award-winning Girl From The North Country, featuring the music of Bob Dylan, will be coming to The Marlowe. Ahead of the show’s arrival, celebrated playwright and director Conor McPherson speaks about the production.

It was in the summer of 2017 that Girl From The North Country, a powerful study of family and poverty, love and loss, opened at London’s Old Vic Theatre. It is set in a down-on-its-luck boarding-house in Dylan’s actual hometown 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 multi award-winning writer/director Conor 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.”

Photo of a woman singing with a microphone

Photo by Johan Persson

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!”

Photo of a group of people singing

Photo by Johan Persson

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.”

Speaking about his work with Bob Dylan, he says: “We’ve only ever communicated through his management and have never spoken directly. We’ve had a lovely artistic correspondence and the way we have it now works perfectly. He sent me a beautiful painting of his.” McPherson has nothing but praise for the creative free rein that Dylan has afforded him, leaving the writer to select the songs he wanted to include in the show.

“I didn’t have any preconceptions”, says McPherson. “I listened to everything and thought I’d see what spoke to me. The ones I latched onto I brought in. It had to be that kind of instinctive, personal feeling”.

Photo of a group of people dancing onstage

Photo by Johan Persson

How many times has Bob Dylan seen it? McPherson says: “He’s such a mysterious person. He claims he’s seen it a few times. I know that he saw it in New York in 2018 and spoke to our cast afterwards. That first time he snuck in and sat up the back with a hoodie on. I think he nips in and out and doesn’t make too much of a fuss.” Dylan sent the cast a note when the show reopened on Broadway after a Covid-enforced closure. It had originally opened in New York in March 2020 after a lengthy preview period and managed just six performances before the theatre world, and indeed the world in general, locked down. McPherson was grateful it at least managed to make it that far and he got to endure the ‘Garden of Gethsemane’ ritual that is the playwright’s opening night. “It’s the first night you’re not taking notes”, he points out. “Whatever happens, this is it. You have to let it go.”

McPherson abounds with hopes for the 2022 tour, into which he has added another two songs. 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’.

Girl From The North Country will run from Tuesday 16 to Saturday 20 August and tickets are available here.