Conor McPherson is best known for that modern masterpiece of Irish drama, The Weir. However, this show is not only unlike anything he has ever written before, it’s also like nothing I’ve ever seen.
On paper, this big idea seems small: to do with Bob Dylan’s music what has been done with the back catalogue of many other pop stars, and recycle it as the soundtrack for a musical. Yet this is no jukebox show. Rather, McPherson – who also directs – has married his words to Dylan’s music in a way that completely reinvents some of the best known and loved tracks in the popular music canon.
The period and setting is a guesthouse in Depression-era Duluth, the town in which Dylan was born almost a decade later. The place is run by Nick (Ciarán Hinds), a good-hearted but long-suffering landlord whose wife Elizabeth is a victim of early-onset Alzheimer’s. Shirley Henderson plays the role as a childlike loose canon. The couple has an adopted black daughter, Marianne (Sheila Atim), whose tall and lean frame highlights a genetic difference with her white parents much more than mere skin colour.
But McPherson derives his narrative from the motley, eclectic collection of Depression survivors who cling to Nick’s place like a life raft. The other residents include a bible seller who is also a small-time crook (Michael Shaeffer) and a couple and their grown-up son who has learning difficulties. Somehow, two adults with the mental age of children doesn’t feel like an overused plot device here. That’s partly because of the skill with which McPherson interweaves these lives. But also the humanity of the piece. The affair that Nick is having with the recently widowed Mrs Neilsen (Debbie Kurup) has the feel of something justified and not at all sordid. And the racial politics of the time are dealt with in a low-key, underplayed way that avoids modern moral outrage being imposed on past injustices. These include the way Nick and his wife were shunned by the denizens of Duluth for choosing to have a black daughter. Then there is the recent imprisonment of Nick’s newest guest, Joe (Arinzé Kene), for a crime he didn’t commit. None of this is laboured. Rather, it’s all part of the human condition that provides context for Dylan’s music.
Most of the cast members double and treble as singer musicians. Narrative is suspended. Microphones and instruments are grasped. The music that pours forth is gorgeous. To say that Dylan’s songs evoke the bleak beauty of the human condition would be to preach to the converted that already worship the Nobel laureate. It would also entirely miss the point. Because the achievement here is not in creating a show that Dylan fans will love (though they will) but in reinventing the music for those who don’t. Simon Hale’s arrangements have given the Dylan canon a soulful makeover rich in harmony and with a clarity that renews familiar lyrics.
The narrator is Ron Cook’s town doctor, whose understanding of human frailty brings to mind the lawyer in Miller’s A View from the Bridge. Granted, there is a whiff of artifice to the whole thing each time the play grinds to a halt to accommodate music. But it works. And Dylan fan though I am, I’m not sure I’d now ever choose to listen to his version of the songs covered here rather than the inevitable cast recording. It’s that good.