Girl from the North Country. Old Vic. 28.8.17

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Most likely it’s just me but it does appear that, in light of the recent destruction of various Confederate statues, it’s becoming harder to forget that the context in which a piece of art sits is often more important than the actual piece of art itself.

Reflecting on my own understanding of the destruction debates, what seems central to both the pro and against paradigms is the importance they place on ‘history’ and how it should be applied to the present.

Those keen on the removal of the statues have tended to talk about the statues as racist symbols of America’s dark legacy of slavery, therefore moving the art out of the context they were created in 150 years ago, and into the social and political context of our present day.  Here it is argued that the deciding factor for the suitability of a piece of art is not the context of the past, but the present.

Conversely, those in favour of the statues remaining have, in the main, argued that we would be wise to use history as a way of understanding the time in which the art was created instead of trying to reframe, and sanitize, a piece of art to fit current times and accepted moral codes.

Combined, both arguments cast an interesting question of how a society choses to regard a piece of art, and whether that appraisal can change over time.  Should our greatest pieces of art be able to span periods of history, or should they remain tied to the era they were documenting?

If we are shaming the Confederacy statues today, would we have praised them at their birth?  And how would we know?

It’s this juxtaposition of culture, and the re-setting of art into it’s intended context, which may well be at the heart of Conor McPherson’s ‘Girl from the North Country’.

Though not central to the main story arc, the triumph of the show is watching how McPherson brilliantly plays with contextual setting of another artists work; time-travelling 20 of Bob Dylan’s most iconic songs from one period to another and, in the process, finding an interesting way to reframe their meaning; perhaps to Dylan’s original intention.

Located in Dylan’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, ‘Girl’ central focus is the effects of the 1930 great depression onto the everyday man’s vision of the American dream.  Set against a story reminiscent of Steinbeck, we are presented with the tale of Nick Lane, a bankrupt, jaded, aging- but deeply loving- father in the throes of holding together a business and family.  Over the course of the play we watch Nick, and all other 18 characters, slowly coming apart at the seams as the reality of depressive economic times bites harder and harder.

In it’s own rite, and removing Dylan’s soundtrack, this is a deeply moving and emotive piece which bullies us into considering how transient wealth and power can be.  Yet the main victory of the play comes from hearing Dylan’s songs placed not in the context of when they were written, but instead in the era they were most likely written about.   Through creating this emotional landscape, it’s as if Conor McPherson has found the spiritual home for Dylan’s songs and allowed us to hear the songs in the place they were written to be heard.  The impact onto Dylan’s work is incredible; trying to describe the difference to a friend I used the imagery of being like witnessing Hendrix first hand smash his guitar at Woodstock, rather than seeing it repeated decades later on a widescreen tv.

Noteworthy interpretations of Dylan are ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ who’s lyrics resonate even more than usual when set in the background of a depression era (“once upon a time you dressed so fine”), the depth of feeling shown when relating ‘I want you’ to people clinging on to anything they can grasp, and the soulful interpretation of ‘Slow train coming’.

The show stealer though is Sheila Atim’s version of ‘Tight connection to my heart’, which is heart-breaking in it’s repetition of the line ‘Has anybody seen my love?’, managing not only to evoke feelings of unrequited love, but also the destruction of the love we have for the belief that our lives can get better.  The new context lets us imagine that Dylan was originally writing about the death of people’s hopes…. The death of the American Dream.

Both the play and the songs would stand brilliantly alone- together they become a force of nature.

McPherson has created a masterpiece; not only as deeply emotional piece of contemplative entertainment, but also as a way of warning people from messing with history.

Not appearing in the show, but 2 of my favourite soul covers of Dylan.

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