Meanwhile at the Royal Alexandra Theatre…

  November 5, 2019  

By Erin Frey | 2 MIN READ

As Bob Dylan has said “Times they are a-changing”. Halloween is in the rear-view, the clocks have already been set back as we march on toward the end of the decade. 

Meanwhile at the Royal Alexandra Theatre… 

If you are looking for answers, look elsewhere. 

Girl From the North Country is not biographical like Jersey Boys, nor is it a fictional story woven around a series of hit songs like Mamma Mia. This is something completely different, more akin to a play with music. But that description makes the music an afterthought when it is more of an equal partner.

Playwright and director Conor McPherson paints with Bob Dylan’s music as if each song is a colour on a palette to illuminate the canvas of his play. Like all art, Girl From the North Country, and Bob Dylan’s music for that matter, raises questions that have no obvious answers. 

One such question is who is the eponymous girl? The easy answer is- Me! I moved north of the city a few years ago so I am now literally a girl from the (near) north country. Then I looked at a map and realized that Bob Dylan’s birthplace and the setting of the show, Duluth Minnesota, is actually considerably farther north than the GTA. So is Conor McPherson’s hometown of Dublin. Much to my dismay, I have not inspired a musical. There’s still time. 

“Girl From the North Country” is one of the songs I was not familiar with going into the show. It is not evident in the show who the title refers to, but clearly she is of utmost importance to McPherson – otherwise he would have selected a different title, possibly one with more name recognition. Clearly this song has been set apart for a reason, so this is where my deep dive begins. 

“Girl From the North Country” was written in 1963. Dylan casts himself as a wanderer looking back. This is not the only song where he employed this technique nor is he the only artist to adopt this character. Chaucer wrote of the wanderer in the middle ages and this archetype has remained an intrinsic part of the zeitgeist ever since. The wanderer in the play is most clearly represented in the character Doctor Walker, the narrator. Walker seems an apt name. 

In this song, ostensibly about a former love, Dylan references “Scarborough Fair”— you guessed it – another song about lost love! Though it was made famous by Simon and Garfunkel in 1965, it is a folk song that dates back to the 17th century. The lyrics are remembrances of a love lost and revolve around a set of impossible tasks in order to find love. 

Appropriately, every character in Girl From the North Country is dealing with their own story of lost love. In fact, loss and regret permeate the play: loss of love, of fortune, of dignity, of life. These themes play out as each character faces the pressures of the Great Depression. Mortality and morality clash under the weight of desperation and the inexorable march of time. 

But in the song and the play, all is not lost. There is hope in survival. In the song, Dylan remembers his lost love with affection. In the play, the characters struggle but they never give up. There is a sense that this too shall pass. The depression will end, if they can survive to see it. 

While Dylan did not have any direct influence on the story, his style clearly made an impression on McPherson. Dylan has been known to lay false trails within the stories of his songs; his lyrics are impossible to pin down to one specific meaning, rather they can be interpreted and reinterpreted. The way the songs – written from the 1960s to the 1980s – are used in the play to reflect the inner feelings of the characters set in 1934 is uncanny. Even more so, the way they actually reflect what is happening in the world today, is truly remarkable. 

I suppose the identity of the girl is immaterial. Really, she could be any of the female characters in the show. A girl lost but not forgotten, always remembered in the bloom of youth and happiness. 

Standout performances of well-known songs such as “Like a Rolling Stone”, “I Want You”, “Hurricane”, and “Tight Connection to my Heart” have been lauded by critics and audience members alike. They are poignant and provocative, and absolutely deserving of all the praise that has been piled on them. 

But for me, the heart of the play, and indeed all of Dylan’s work, lies in the hidden. 

Lots of questions, no answers. And that’s the way it should be.