And certainly not to act. I enjoy performing, as anyone who has heard me reading from ‘Wilful Misunderstandings’ will probably confirm, but anything that would depend on learning ‘lines’ is pretty much out of the question as I have a distinctly malfunctioning memory.
It may be somewhat surprising, therefore, to hear that I spent some years in the early 1980s as a member of a touring theatre group. There is an explanation. The group, Word and Action (Dorset), was to a large extent run on a collective basis and had branched out into various ‘community arts’ activities including publishing. I joined because they were looking for someone to co-ordinate a poetry magazine. A different Dorset based poet was invited to edit each issue – I was to be the ‘go-between’. Fine. I was cut out for that. But then they said: ‘this is a collective. You participate in everything we do.’ Gulp.
But what they did, I certainly admired. It was, on absolute principal, 'theatre in the round' – no special lighting, no special effects or soundtrack, virtually no scenery or costume. It was a form of theatre that sought to remove any sense of hierarchy that exists between performer and audience, and to enable audience members to use their own imaginations to a much greater degree. (I’ll add a couple of links at the end for anyone interested). Much of W&A(D)’s work was improvised, audiences being invited to create - and join in performing - the story. To my surprise, with some in-group training, I discovered I had whatever it takes to be a part of this process and ended up working not only in Dorset but joining touring groups in the UK and Scandinavia. When it came to the scripted work I remained crap and fortunately was not called upon to do much of it.
I left the group after two or three years, following my own star once more. Its view of theatre had made a lasting impression on me and I was deeply suspicious of any kind of staged theatrical performance. This combined with my earlier lack of interest, and though in time I mellowed, theatre remained low on my list of priorities. Consequently, when I left a subsequent employment in 2012 and my generous work colleagues presented me with a substantial pile of theatre tokens as a parting gift, I was bemused. I made polite noises of gratitude and privately thought: ‘What am I going to do with these?’
Five years later and I finally got to use some of them. Passing through London on the train I saw a poster advertising ‘Girl From the North Country’ and was intrigued. Written and directed by Conor McPherson, it said, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan. McPherson was a ‘complete unknown’ as far as I was concerned. Dylan certainly wasn’t. Checked it out online back home and the intrigue continued. Discovered I could use my tokens at the Old Vic where it was on. Asked my dear partner if she was up for it and she was. Thus, last Wednesday, we found ourselves sat in the middle of Row R, in stall seats we would normally have balked at paying for, as the performance commenced.
As I hope I’ve explained, I had a lot of suspicion to overcome – and I haven’t even mentioned yet that of all forms of theatre ‘musicals’ were at the bottom of my list. I’m not among the most fanatical of Bob Dylan appreciators, but can think of few other songwriters whose best work has remained so resonant and powerful for most of my life. The play uses songs from 1963 to 2012, and plenty of my favourites are amongst them. What were they going to do? Give them the ‘showbiz’ treatment? The thought appalled me.
Some reassurance came with the instrumentation evident on the stage – a drumkit to stage right, an upright piano to stage left. Not much else to be seen until musicians appeared toting acoustic guitars, upright bass and fiddle. The choice was, apparently, to use only instruments contemporaneous with the play's 1930s period setting. Further reassurance came with the first song: ‘Sign on the Window’ from ‘New Morning’. Beautifully sung, the freshness and suggestiveness of the lyrics (‘Sign on the window says "lonely, " / Sign on the door said "no company allowed, "…’) seemed re-illuminated for me.
It aptly, if not literally, set the atmosphere for the play that was to follow – an interweaving of stories set in the single location of a Duluth, Minnesota guesthouse during the Depression era. The various characters are beset by tragedy, some of their own making, some forced by desperate circumstance – yet the script is loaded with humour and sharp repartee. It doesn’t take long before you feel for them, share their hopes and aspirations and, as the chips go down, their despair.
As for the musical interludes – which is how they came, often as medleys of two or more songs – the pattern of aptness, rather than literal correlation became set and worked, for me, extremely well. This approach has been described by the play’s creators as ‘a conversation between the songs and the story’ and, thinking about it, is probably the only way you could locate some of Dylan’s most powerful songs in such a context. It helped that the performers, almost every last one of them, were such strong and impassioned singers and that the musical arrangements were mostly spot-on appropriate.
A few liberties were of necessity taken. Lyrics to the songs were edited (how long would it have taken just to listen to those twenty songs in their entirety?) and were arranged and interpreted according to the emotional context of the scenes in which they featured. Very occasionally, I did get a ‘showbiz’ vibe – the performance of ‘I Want You’ kind of palled for me, losing too much of the laconic splendour of its verses in favour of an over simplified emphasis on its chorus. But this was a minor slip. A lot of attention had been paid to the vitality of Dylan’s ‘born again’ era gospel-type arrangements and even when they did not originate in this period, a lot of the songs benefited from the additional harmonies etc. The dancing was pretty darn good too.
So, as you’ve doubtless guessed by now, I was won over in the course of this performance. It was particularly enhanced by what seemed to me a stand-out job of work by the diminutive but powerful Shirley Henderson, as Elizabeth, wife of the guesthouse proprietor, Nick. Described as a victim of dementia her character provided a kind of ‘holy fool’ element – apparently deranged yet speaking, at times, the most penetrating truths. This actress clearly relished the part and sometimes literally threw herself into it, managing to maintain her sense of her character even in the group dance routines. Her rendition of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ touched on the sublime. I’ve singled her out but similar relish could be felt in a good many more of the character parts, and – towards the end – the script touched on deeper and more fundamental human issues. I will be keeping an eye open for more of Conor McPherson’s work in future.
Okay, now I have to admit, I was in tears at the end. There was tragedy, there was redemption for some, and there was a final rendition of ‘Forever Young’ – one of Dylan’s sweetest and most hopeful songs. As much as the story and the performances, it was the sense of celebration of Dylan’s work that affected me so strongly, I think. So final words to him:
Can you tell me where we're headin'?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
Seems like I been down this way before
Is there any truth in that, señor?
Word and Action links: