Girl From The North Country heads Down Under

Photo of the original London production at the Old Vic Theatre. Image: northcountry.com.au.

When you bring together the dialogue mastery of Irish playwright Conor McPherson, the acuity of composer Simon Hale and the Nobel Prize-winning storytelling prowess of Bob Dylan, the expectations are going to be high – and by all accounts, they’ve been met. The Sentinel spoke with cast member, Christina O’Neill about Girl From The North Country.

“I guess it’s more of a play with music rather than your traditional musical,” says Christina O’Neill, describing the way Bob Dylan’s music has been used to create Girl From The North Country.

Playwright Conor McPherson was given access to Dylan’s complete catalogue. He has used the songs more as punctuation, embellishment; to accentuate emotion rather than progress the narrative or provide internal dialogues, as songs often do in musicals.  

Set in 1934 in Duluth, Minnesota, (Dylan’s home town) Girl From The North Country tells the story of a group of people disenfranchised by misfortune in a town hit badly by the Great Depression. The action takes place in a boarding house run by a couple and their children, inhabited by a mixed bag of characters. 

The story explores themes of loneliness, love, betrayal, generosity, hardship and perseverance. 

“It’s really relevant to this time, this group of people going through this unprecedented collective struggle,” says O’Neill. It sounds like a downer, but O’Neill assures us it’s not. “Because then you’ve got these beautiful Dylan songs which Conor McPherson describes as the honey to the vinegar of life.”

The Australian cast of Girl From The North Country (Christina O’Neill far left, front row.) Image: northcountry.com.au.

There is actually a lot of humour in the script, as well as tenderness and perhaps a little bit of intrigue. It’s earthy and visceral. 

“It’s real life,” says O’Neill. “It’s these people going through struggles, you know? There’s no sheen to it, there’s no kind of gloss that sometimes you get in a musical. It’s messy. But then you get those moments when the song comes through and, I guess like all great music, it releases you.”

The songs themselves have been given a new treatment by composer, Simon Hale. He’s added lush arrangements using the sounds and instruments of the period.  

“You’ve got Andrews Sisters harmonies, some gospel in there, a lot of folk sound. You get a real sense of that place in history,” explains O’Neill. 

Behind the scenes on the Girl From The North Country Australian cast photoshoot. Video: YouTube/theatreroyalsydney.

The lyrics for the songs have been kept intact, with only very slight tweaks. Musically, the songs sound new. Sometimes, only fragments are played, and some songs are interwoven with others. The band is on stage, with actors also occasionally picking up an instrument. 

While the song list for Girl From The North Country includes many familiar Dylan classics, there are also some obscure tunes.  

“I wasn’t that familiar with the scope of Dylan’s catalogue and it’s quite amazing, actually,” says O’Neill who really enjoys the music in the show and discovering those hidden Dylan gems. “I grew up really loving Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, so I’ve always gravitated towards the singer/songwriter/folk singer genre of music.”

The show is an ensemble piece with the various storylines overlapping. O’Neill plays a woman called Mrs Neilson, whom she describes as progressive and entrepreneurial.

Bob Dylan in Rotterdam, 1978. Image: Chris Hakkens/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons.

“She is a great character, she is a real spirited woman. She is a widow, a youngish widow who’s waiting to come into her husband’s inheritance. So, the boarding house is a place where she’s treading water,” says O’Neill. 

In fact, many of the female characters break with stereotypes which makes this a refreshing depiction of that period. 

To get in the right headspace, O’Neill watched a lot of Dust Bowl era films and revisited the works of John Steinbeck, Eugene O’Neill and Thornton Wilder – which provide a good indication of the tone and feel of this show. 

And what of being only the second show to play at the newly re-opened Theatre Royal?

“Just so stoked! I did Avenue Q there about 12 years ago, which was one of my big roles straight out of drama school, and we had such a long run at Theatre Royal and I have such fond memories of that space.”

Girl From The North Country plays the Theatre Royal, 108 King Street, Sydney from Wednesday, 5 January, 2022. For tickets and further information, visit www.northcountry.com.au.