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A cruel world where people are kind, soundtracked by Dylan

Girl from the North Country at the 3Olympia, Dublin, until July 30

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The cast of Girl from the North Country at the 3Olympia. Photo by Johan Persson

The cast of Girl from the North Country at the 3Olympia. Photo by Johan Persson

Sinead Murphy and Darina Gallagher in The Battle of Kildare Place. Photo by Keith Jordan

Sinead Murphy and Darina Gallagher in The Battle of Kildare Place. Photo by Keith Jordan

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The cast of Girl from the North Country at the 3Olympia. Photo by Johan Persson

A packed 3Olympia Theatre rapturously received Irish writer-director Conor McPherson’s jukebox musical of Bob Dylan songs on a hot summer night. On the night I attended, there were three Covid-related understudies but the overwhelming spirit of the evening carried nonetheless.

It is 1934: in a heavily indebted boarding house in Dylan’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, Nick and his mentally ill wife Elizabeth are trying to prevent the banks foreclosing. Their son Gene is a wannabe writer, but mainly a boozer; their black adopted daughter Marianne is pregnant and unmarried. The house is inhabited by a variety of folks, all down on their luck. A memory play, it reminds us of American classic work by Thornton Wilder; a morality play, it summons the spirit of Arthur Miller.

There is much wisdom and sensitivity in McPherson’s writing: Mr Perry, the 70-year-old to whom Nick is trying to marry off pregnant Marianne, talks about ageing: “No one asks to grow old.” Mr Burke, a father of a disabled adult son, talks about the pain of watching his son grow to be a man with the mind of a child — this performed movingly by understudy Graham Kent, even with script in hand. There is a chilling scene of 1930s unadulterated racism.

Unstable Elizabeth, played by Frances McNamee, is a wonderful creation, with her truth-telling madness. The eye is automatically drawn to her.

The arrangements of the music, mostly by Simon Hale, reshape the songs for the context, radically transforming them. If, like me, you rate Dylan as a songwriter much more than as a singer, these magical versions possess a variety and beauty that his own renditions lack.

McPherson directs with a carefully orchestrated randomness. Rae Smith’s design, including a number of large projections, has a scattered, spontaneous mood. The Depression era feels real and immediate, but for all its deliberate Americana, there is a peasant atmosphere that has an Irish tinge ­— people without privilege trying to live by their wits in a world that is cruel but among people who are kind.

Drama built on the strain of cultural activism

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Sinead Murphy and Darina Gallagher in The Battle of Kildare Place. Photo by Keith Jordan

Sinead Murphy and Darina Gallagher in The Battle of Kildare Place. Photo by Keith Jordan

Sinead Murphy and Darina Gallagher in The Battle of Kildare Place. Photo by Keith Jordan

The Battle of Kildare Place
Bewley’s Café Theatre Walkabout, Dublin until July 16

We assemble outside the Shelbourne Hotel and are led down Kildare Street to the small tree-filled square that is Kildare Place. It is overlooked on one side by the neo-Georgian rear entrance of the National Museum, on another by the brutalist Department of Agriculture building, and across the street is the art deco Department of Enterprise building.

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We come across Gráinne (Sinead Murphy) talking on her mobile to English colleagues. She is waiting for her sister Meadhbh (Darina Gallagher); they are meeting to discuss a memorial for their father, an architectural activist whose efforts served to preserve much of Georgian Dublin from the wrecker’s ball and the march of 1970s brutalism. The two sisters have very different experiences of their father. An inspiring activist, thinks the younger woman. A feckless parent, thinks the elder.

This is interesting stuff: we ignore the toll that cultural activism takes on families, when in the old days, a wife and mother was often left picking up the pieces.

Written by Emma Gilleece and Michael James Ford (who also directs), the play is full of fascinating architectural nuggets but falls into lecturing mode rather too readily.

Murphy and Gallagher both charm and convince as the sisters. However, for all the interesting building materials, the final structure is too top-heavy with information.


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