Review: Girl from the North Country

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Image via London Theatre Guide

I’ll be honest: I really really wanted to see Mosquitoes. I queued twice to try to get tickets. But I was denied the two Olivias (sob!). So I went to the Tkts booth intending to maybe see Hamlet but there being only obstructed view, I decided to go with Girl from the North Country. Advertising worked: I had seen that poster everywhere. Besides, the trip had picked up a musical theme somehow so it fit.

What a cast! Shirley Henderson, Ciarán Hinds, Bronagh Gallagher, Ron Cook, Jim Norton, Sheila Atim, Arinzé Kene. Of course, the underlying strength of Dylan’s songs had to count for a lot too: and then there was the script and direction by Conor McPherson.

For me, it just didn’t work. There was so much that seemed like it would be right: the Great Depression setting, the diverse cast of singers, the potential for drama inherent in the songs. The performances were a knockout: the songs were wonderful to hear in a completely different way. Thoughtful interpretations of old favourites — though I could have done without the bros next to me singing along with Jokerman. Hearing Dylan’s songs in a new way that was more bluesy than the usual Broadway show tunes style made them a new experience. The cast, especially Atim, brought the tunes to life. All of them were wonderful in the songs and the arrangements were innovative and interesting without feeling like they were going for deliberate novelty. The band was tight!

The script on the other hand — ugh! When you start out the play with a character introducing and setting up the scene, then saying ‘but I don’t come along until later’ — well, you’ve started out on the wrong foot. Theatre should throw you into a world, make it live. I’m hoping this is a work in progress because it definitely feels like one. The ideas are there but I didn’t believe even one of the characters. They felt like plot points. It’s to the credit of the stellar cast that they poured themselves into these characters. I felt for the actors but I never much felt for the characters.

Everything about it felt anachronistic. There’s so much here with potential: the economic hardship, the precarious difficulty of being a carer — Henderson’s character seemed to be as ‘crazy’ as the plot required at the moment though she wrung a good bit of sympathy out of this difficult woman, while the characterisation of the apparently autistic boy felt too much like a plot idea that never came to life — and the racial tensions which are brought up and then kind of sidestepped. I realise in a musical people might want to avoid getting too dark but seriously, it’s the Great Depression. You’re going to have to embrace the dark.

But I seem to be in a minority here, so see it for yourself and tell me what you think.

Story for a Sunday: Tangled Up in Some Sort of Cerulean Hue

cateblan1scope_468x680Bob Dylan: Nobel Prize Winner — bet you didn’t have a fiver on him. Nine years ago I had this tale published in the tiny lit journal Ephemera. Did anyone notice it was a bunch of Dylan lyrics somewhat altered mashed up with a little Marlowe? No, probably not. But it amused me. I have not read it now as I think it might be painful. But you can read it.

Tangled Up in Some Sort of Cerulean Hue

She was a beauty, all auburn curls, doe eyes, and hippie garments. But I think it was chiefly the eyes, moist and beseeching, that made me forget my usual caution and help her out of that sticky situation, but—like the man said—I guess I used a little too much energy to do so. What is it with some women? They cling to whatever wind blows the most hot air. She was with a jerk, I applied a little leverage and next thing I know, she was stuck on me. Not just stuck—glued, applied, corkscrewed into my entrails—she showed no signs of budging. Which was why I found myself standing in that solitary grove with books of Albanus and Bacon and a big old Latin bible that I could sort of read, inside a chalk circle, ready for conjuring.

Bobby swore it would work. I guess I should have considered the logic of that assumption, but I was too busy daydreaming of life post-hoc. I was an idiot. Gravity is the destiny of us all. Suckers.

The borderline separating my circle from the mundane should have been safe. Well, for that matter, the charm itself should have produced rather different results. I guess that’s where better reading knowledge of Latin would have helped, but it was never so easy for me. There were so many distractions: crickets rhymed shrieks back and forth while the trees’ limbs guffawed an obscene parody of their song. The stupid wind kept blowing the pages back and forth. For all I know, now that I think on it, I managed to conjure two different rituals into one.

I really just wanted to peel off that persistent drag. She was nice enough at first, but I never did take to the clingy types. As the sun descended like a slippery egg yolk down the cobalt sky, I was already picturing my new life, free from the eternal bondage—eternal since Tuesday—of that woman who wanted to keep hold of my shoelaces and drag along behind my sorry carcass for an apparently indefinite period. I knew I was in trouble when she fluttered those too long lashes at me and murmured in my ear how happy she was. I didn’t even blink, but I knew I had to start planning right then.

It only took a few days to assemble the necessary materials. Thank the gods for the internet, which I mean to say, thank science—or technology or whatever. I don’t know how it’s done. It might was well be magic. But I found local shops with the needed ingredients—even dog tongue, which turned out to be some kind of herb. That was a relief. I might be able to hurt a woman, but never a dog! Damn, they’re innocent creatures. Not that I meant to hurt her, just kind of discourage her, turn her off. Give her something else to worry about and let me go. Now she’s just going to think I pissed off and left her. I guess that would be irony.

It seemed so perfect. I felt like some medieval Merlin, necromantic books before me, the world under m spell. Bobby said he’d had such successes with his chanting and such. Surely it would work just as well for me. It’s all in the book. Why would it matter who said it? Yeah, sure, I know what you’re thinking—pronunciation. Yeah, maybe—then again, maybe it was the wind and those pages. The back pages of the book were pretty thin and the wind kept blowing like it had it in for me from the start. It wasn’t possible to tell at first whether it worked or not.   It’s not like I would have seen her disappear like some cloud of smoke. There was no clap of thunder or buckets of rain descending. But it wasn’t too long before I knew that I had got my signals crossed and all was not well. Beware of Latin—dead languages don’t care who they screw.

From the indigo darkness, something hit me from below. Never did see what it was—some creature lacking shape or natural order—but its impact was immediate and bruising. Knocked me clean out after seeing stars that were not part of the navy canvas of the night sky. Gone, over and out, no balls, no strikes, just error—good night, nurse.

I woke up on the side of the grove, flies droning around my head. I knew something was wrong because the sound made me hungry. Everything looked a lot bigger and before I could give myself a stern talking to, I was beginning to realize that things were worse than mere failure. So here I am, stuck. In my present state I can’t even touch the books I read. What’s the likelihood anyone will stumble across them and read just the right spell? What’re the odds that anyone will listen to me in present state? What I wouldn’t give for her to be so determined to find me that she comes out here, calling “Jimmy, Jimmy,” and recognizing me and restoring me back to what I was. I wouldn’t even leave her then, no, I’d be an honorable man after that. Really, you have to believe me. If you see her, you know, maybe if she hasn’t gotten over me, hasn’t begun to curse my name and all my sex, well, maybe give her some hope. She might be living there in my cruddy old apartment, thinking I forgot all about her. It’s not true. She’s all I think about now—well, her and the damn crickets. They turn out to be pretty tasty. But if you see her, you can tell her that now. I’d love to have her come find me. I want her to want me. I want to be me again, even with her hanging on me all the time. Hell, I’d welcome it. Tell her.

And if you see a toad, say hello. It might be me.

Unloading Your Head

‘I need a dump truck, mama, to unload my head…’
Bob Dylan, From a Buick 6

The difference between people who create things and people who do not is only that the former follow the impulses which infect their brains because trying to make them manifest is the true joy of being alive. Can I make this thing I see/feel/hear in my head into something real?

Even if it's something incredibly silly --

Even if it’s something incredibly silly —

Often the result is a failure — probably most of the time it is. The perfect vision is difficult to make manifest because we don’t (or don’t yet, we hope) have the skill. We don’t have the right words or the right lines or the right instruments to make it so, but we itch to make it real. We’re elated when we have it in a form that we can share with others, yet disappointed because it was so perfect in our heads and this is not perfect.

But what magic it is to share the ideas in your head with other people.

The distance between your vision and your creation creates ambition and despair. With luck, the former outweighs the latter. Keeping at it is the only way to get better. Be ambitious. Create.

‘What is now proved was once only imagined.’
William Blake

Giraudoux Secret of success