Boy from the north county

Conor at work in rehearsals. Credit: Johan Persson

World renowned Dublin playwright Conor McPherson talks to David Hennessy about his Bob Dylan musical, why it’s a suitable play for these uncertain times and adapting Chekhov for the West End.  

Since The Weir, a haunting tale set entirely in an Irish country pub, opened at London’s Royal Court in 1997 and won him an Olivier Award, Conor McPherson has been widely regarded as one of Ireland’s finest writers. He made his debut at the National Theatre in 2006 when he directed The Seafarer. Among his other productions, there has also been a season of his work at the Donmar Warehouse in 2013 that included the premiere of The Night Alive and The Weir being revived with an all star cast.

McPherson, who grew up in Raheny in north Dublin, will be bringing his Bob Dylan-inspired musical Girl from the North Country to the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West End this month after its successful run at the Old Vic in 2017.

Set in Dylan’s hometown of Duluth and in the era of the Great Depression, Conor told The Irish World he thinks this era has many parallels with today’s uncertain climate: “I think setting it in the 1930s was just an instinctive thing but then the more I think about it since we’ve done the show, the more I actually think the time we are living in now really echoes the 1930s.

“I think in a sense we’re moving into a time where everybody is talking about more borders, more walls, smaller concerns, nationalism. Those things are really rising in a way that hasn’t been seen on this level since the 1930s. I guess it’s an instinctive way of looking at what it does feel like to live in that time because it seems to reflect our time now.

“This play is full of people who are yearning to find some sense of peace and how to make things work. (In a play), you have got to have characters who are struggling to make things work in their own lives.”

The play centres around Nick Laine who is about to default on the mortgage for his hotel meaning that he and his family may soon have to take their issues with them when they have nowhere to go.

The play’s name comes from Marianne who was abandoned as a baby in one of the guest rooms and is now all grown up with no partner and pregnant with a baby of her own.

Just like his Dublin Carol, there is an alcoholic among the characters. This may be inspired by his own story as Conor has spoken before about how he became an alcoholic in the same period he became successful.

He was on the way to the premiere of his play Port Authority in 2001 when he got a debilitating pain in his stomach. He was 29 and his pancreas had ruptured. He was told if he drank again, he would die.

“I think anytime you write a play or you want to write a story, you’re bringing your own experience to it. There’s no question so it has to have some feeling in there of something that you actually really believe is the way life feels. That definitely is in there.”

Was it a stretch to move from drama into musical theatre? “In the beginning, it did feel very different. I had never done anything like that before and I wasn’t really sure how it would work but then as soon as we got into the first production, I just really enjoyed getting on with it and playing music. I just loved playing the guitar in rehearsals, it was great fun. It feels very natural now. At the beginning, I was hesitant but now I really enjoy it.”

It may seem a change for Conor to be directing a musical but as a younger man, he carried a guitar everywhere and had planned on a career in music. Is it more like coming full circle than changing direction? “I suppose in a strange way it is. When I was a teenager, that was all I wanted to do so it’s a great way to revisit those early passions.”

Conor made his screenwriting debut with I Went Down which starred Brendan Gleeson and Peter McDonald. He later directed Michael Caine and Dylan Moran in The Actors. He also directed Eclipse starring Ciarán Hinds who has also acted in McPherson’s plays.

Was it flattering to be asked to write this play by the Bob Dylan Estate? “I suppose it was, I never really understood how that works particularly.

“Bob Dylan seemed to have some strong interest in the theatre for a long time. They had already done a show using his music maybe ten years or something and I don’t think that had worked out very well but he seemed to still be very keen to try and do it which I didn’t really realise and I had read his book Chronicles.

“In that book, he talked about back in the late 60s, early 70s he had also tried to put together a show in the theatre and he had been writing songs for it and he had been doing that and he wrote in that book he always considered the theatre to be a very high craft that he admired and respected.

“On one level, it’s very surprising but on another actually it’s something he seems to have been trying to do for a very long time which is sort of surprising and yet everything Bob Dylan does is kind of surprising. He’s always confounding expectations, I suppose.”

Conor knew the music was excellent but that he just had to bring it to life in the right way to make it a successful show: “Listening to all his songs and he has so many great songs, that part of it is not going to be a problem. If you have these songs being performed well on stage and that’s what half the show is, at least half this show is going to be good but then being a playwright and working at that for a very long time, experience shows you that really where an audience is connecting with a play is often on a level that is kind of underneath the play.

“It’s kind of an unconscious, almost physical level sometimes so it’s more than just the writing, it’s more than just the words, it’s to do with the performers onstage and their presence and the presence of the rest of the audience and that kind of almost ritualistic aspect of theatre is part of what makes it so powerful. In a way what I think plays are often doing is that they are yearning to be music on that level.

“Just having all these incredible songs to pick from releases that energy that I suppose I have been looking for in my work into a place that is entirely natural for me and Bob Dylan’s songs because they are, first of all so melodically great but then also the lyrics can be so suggestive, they’re never prescriptive, they’re always poetic in the sense that they invite the listener to make what they want of the lyrics.

“In fact those kind of songs work perfect for taking an audience deeper into something on a kind of unconscious level so all of that together now I realise kind of works but maybe I sort of knew that instinctively. I certainly wasn’t aware of it as a plan but something about the whole thing told me it might work.”

The play will make its Broadway premiere in February next year when it opens for previews at the Belasco Theatre: “It’s really exciting. I did a production of the play last year at The Public Theatre in New York Off-Broadway and that went really, really great. It’s hopefully that production which will move to Broadway so having done it with American actors, it’s lovely to see it working. It’s lovely to see that they accept it as an American play and perform it with great confidence and it’s been great to see an American audience embracing it. Taking anything to Broadway is a kind of amazing thing because it’s a very slim chance that any show ever ends up on Broadway. It’s a kind of culmination of all the hard work.”

Could Conor see himself directing a musical again? “I certainly wouldn’t rule it out at all. I think music is incredibly powerful in the theatre but what I would want to be careful of is not just try and repeat the same formula somehow. It would have to feel very organic and it would have to come together in a very special way. I still don’t think I’m the kind of person who can just stick a musical together and stick it on, it has to come from a place of genuine inspiration.”

Girl from the North Country is not the only play Conor is bringing to the West End in the near future. His adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, staring Richard Armitage, Toby Jones as well as Irish actors Ciarán Hinds and Dearbhla Molloy, will launch at the Harold Pinter in January. On adapting the great Russian dramatist’s work, Conor says, “On one level you feel that you’re in the presence of greatness and you have to respect what he’s managed to achieve. Then on another level all you’re really trying to do is to make it accessible for an audience who perhaps are used to drama coming at them in a slightly different rhythm now.

The cast of Conor’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya.

“I think 100 years ago the way people watched a play, probably the way people’s lives are now, it’s a little bit different. I think you need to make sure that the play can stay ahead of an audience. That’s what I would be trying to do, not to have a version which in some way just feels like the audience already have a handle on it. It’s trying to present it in a way that moves forward and that the audience have to keep up as opposed to something which they feel they can too easily get a handle on.”

Chekhov is known for finding drama in the everyday and mundane moments of life. Is this something Conor and he have in common? “Yeah, I think so. I think to find drama where you least expect it actually is the most exciting type of drama.

“I think if you look at what people are hugely interested in as well, people are always really interested in real stories. Even if you look at how one of the biggest things that people look at now in this era of streaming and downloading box sets are real stories, real crime stories, real things that have happened. There’s something about those documentaries that people are interested in because ordinary life is always far more surprising than fiction. There’s no question that ordinary people will do the most shocking things and there’s something about that that is inherently dramatic.”

When The Weir opened in the Royal Court in 1997, it won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play for 1999. His early success came along with that of other fresh Irish playwrights like Martin McDonagh, Enda Walsh and Mark O’Rowe.

However, Conor has said before he didn’t feel his successes were his successes, that any accolades that came his way were almost accidental. Asked about them now and if he feels more proprietorial,  he says, “I would be very proud of those things and delighted that those early things went so well. I think most writers though will usually be focused on the next thing, it’s just always the way we are. You think, ‘Right, well, I’ve done that one. Now I’m moving onto the next thing’.

The cast of Conor McPherson’s 2013 The Weir.

“The odd part that you just have to come to peace with is a play like The Weir which is 20 years later still being performed a lot, that you’re constantly being drawn back to something that you did 20 years ago and you’re a different person. There’s something about that that is on one level fantastic and on another level you’re like, ‘Yeah but actually I’m doing something else now’.

“So it’s that kind of feeling that it’s brilliant and it’s amazing to have done that but do I sit around thinking about it very much? No, I probably don’t really. I’m always thinking about the next thing.”

McPherson turned his back on religion in his teens which was roughly around the time when he also started writing. After taking many beatings for his sins at his strict school, he decided he would be free in his life, even if that meant going to hell. Does he feel ahead of the curve here since many people have followed him after numerous church scandals? “I think people will always be religious.

“They will always have some yearning to understand what everything means. Just for me as a young person, I didn’t quite relate to the structures that were in place in Ireland. There was something instinctively I didn’t relate to so much. Any Irish person that is brought up as a Catholic, or Protestant, in some way that’s always in your bones, it’s in your DNA.

“Actually for writers, I think early religious education becomes a great source of the imagination. I certainly don’t regret being brought up as a Catholic but at a certain point I moved on from that but I’m still grateful for the education that I got.”

So what’s next? “I’m working on some new stuff. I’ve got some new ideas so I’m just writing at the moment. Then I’m going back to Girl from the North Country, making sure that journey is complete as it comes back to London and goes to Broadway. After that I’ll probably feel like I’m in a much freer place to concentrate on new things. While I’m working on new things, I’m still very much enjoying the success of Girl from the North Country and allowing that to finish its journey as well.”

Girl from the North Country opens at Gielgud Theatre in the West End on 16 December, with previews from 10 December.

Uncle Vanya plays at the Harold Pinter from 14 January. 

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