I arrived on February 4th for a two-week theatre trip to London. I am hoping to make this cultural pilgrimage about twice a year to write these roundups for sessumsMagazine.com subscribers. Here is the first one.
DOWNBEATS, DEADBEATS, AND ONE BEAT POET
The first night of my theatre trip to London was spent easing myself into my British environment by settling into a seat at the “Bob Dylan musical” set in depression-era Duluth, Minnesota, the 76-year-old Nobel Prize winner’s hometown, so that America itself seemed to be alighting too in the Noel Coward Theatre my initial few hours in London. Titled Girl from the North Country after one of Dylan’s songs about that boyhood environment of his, the show has been devised by playwright and director Conor McPherson and is now playing the Coward in the West End after its sold-out run at the Old Vic. A kind of Prairie Home Companion reconfigured so that its homespun Great Depression quality seems to have been woven on a loonier more lonely loom that could have also come up with one of Dylan’s own tatty black turtlenecks when he was first starting out and beating the Beats at their own game. At first I was rolling my eyes at the hoary, seemingly slapdash dramaturgy from McPherson whose work in the past has moved me – often in sneakily delicate ways – but it was, yes, this show’s threads of delicacy finally that sneaked up on me and moved me by the end. Dylan’s music has certainly never been more delicately and lovingly arranged. Simon Hale, the show’s musical supervisor, is the real star of the evening. His work weaving – that word again – the music with the extraordinary voices of the cast members is often piercingly beautiful.
The plot revolves around a boarding house in Duluth and all the lost, deadbeat souls who come through it. Think of an even sadder Saroyan or wilder Wilder. There are also notes of Steinbeck and Odets to go along with those of Dylan. The only slightly off-key quality of such a movingly sung show filled with some of Dylan’s most deeply felt and moving songs is the ersatz Americanism of it all. There does seem a bit of overcompensation in its sense-of-place as if McPherson knows what he does not know and tries to cover that up with a bit of purple poetic Americana. And, forgive me Nobel committee, but in that he perhaps was taking his cue from Dylan himself whose own pissed-off purpleness can be passed off as mystery or even genius.
And yet, as I said, by the end of the evening – like at the end of one of Dylan’s songs that we are seduced into hearing anew in Girl from the North Country – I found myself mysteriously moved. That is the genius, I guess, of Dylan after all. And of McPherson. And of theatre itself.
O’NEILL ALSO ANEW
I have seen several productions of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. When I was still a teenager in Jackson, Mississippi, Geraldine Fitzgerald arrived at New Stage Theatre, where Eudora Welty served on the board, to play Mary Tyrone with a local cast. I was still too young to understand the depths of the play, but I loved seeing the man I had a crush on and with whom I was sleeping play the older son Jamie so stunningly. I was less impressed with Fitzgerald who seemed a bit too mannered to me in the role that can so easily slip into the imagined mannerisms of a morphine addict. I next saw the brilliant Vanessa Redgrave play the role on Broadway and felt as claustrophobic in the theatre holed up there with the massiveness of her talent as she, playing the morphine-addled Mary, felt in that tatty seaside home of the Tyrones. I think I remember her literally attempting to climb a wall at one point. I most recently saw Jessica Lange’s larger-than-life lurch at the role that was so lovely in so many moments and so lurid in others and so very, very sad. I missed the great Colleen Dewhurst in the part but I can imagine her playing how finally indestructible the woman is. Katharine Hepburn in the film version? I don’t count her because she’s just always played different kinds of Katharines.
Lesley Manville now playing the role on the West End in London is in a category by herself. Maybe, since I didn’t bring my own expectations to her essaying the role because she is not a star like the other actresses I have mentioned, I was free to experience the role anew. She doesn’t play “the play,” as all the other actresses did, which is understandable because O’Neill’s masterpiece is considered The Great American Play. (It is certainly the greatest play ever written about addiction.) Manville instead plays the woman and the addict lost not to wander around in a great piece of literature but in an unmoored marriage and life. She is giving a nuanced yet knowing performance for this is not just a play about addiction but also about alcoholism. Mary is quite aware that she is surrounded by alcoholics and Manville made me understand not only what it was like to be lost in the fog of her addiction but also to be surrounded by such men who, like the characters’s father, are as besotted by The Drink as she is by her memories of what life was like before she was old enough to realize she was surrounded by such a life, by such men, by such alcoholics. Hell, I’d shoot up too if I had to put up with their judgment while getting so high themselves.
Jeremy Irons – whose wan swanning can so often be as mannered as any morphine-riddled Mary – has found the ex-matinee-idol, actor-without-a-stage-in-the-summer, the sorrow-addled man married to such a Mary, at the deeply frustrated center of his brokenhearted character of James. Indeed, Irons makes you feel that heartbreak inherent in such a man better than any actor I’ve ever seen play the role. And he downplays the Irish Catholic gruffness and makes you believe that this man has reinvented himself as the most actorly of actors with all the affectations that he has settled into in order to comfort himself against the disappointments in his life: his wife’s addiction, his compromised career, his sorry sons, his own alcoholism. Irons is the star of this production. And he is giving a star turn playing a man who became known for giving a star turn. It is a layered performance that matches Manville in its nuance and knowingness.
As the two sons, Rory Keenan as Jamie and Matthew Beard as Edmund, could not be more different and don’t appear to be brothers at all while at the same time appearing – disconcertingly so – to be the son of each respective parent. Keenan resembles Manville in both appearance and performance. He is, as the role is written for him to be, the grit in the grace of O’Neill’s writerly presence that hovers over the play like the real fog through which Mary and the drunken men foggily forage about. Beard, extremely tall and extremely thin and extremely pretty, can swan as wanly as Irons. I kept recalling Redgrave as I watched the two of them in their long scene in the second half of the play – if she had been combined with Tony Perkins. There is also a pronounced queer quality to Beard’s Edmund which gave the play an added layer I had never considered before. And as a queer myself with a rather mournful poetic take on life, I was deeply moved by this new thread in the worn fabric of this play.
Indeed, I reconsidered the whole play during my walk back to Bloomsbury and my hotel after its opening night on the West End. Because director Richard Eyre stripped away “the greatness” that almost always overlays the play – yet more fog for us to get through, in its way – the play for the first time to me seemed truly and finally great. It is that kind of refracted consideration that was also been manifested in the translucent walls and ceiling of the production’s set which has been brilliantly considered by Rob Howell; at moments the home surrounding this heartbroken American family began to reflect the action on the stage in myriad images and I was seeing three or four Marys and Jameses and Jamies and Edmunds just as O’Neill had layered them into his play.
It is a great production that you will be able to see at BAM in New York from May 8 – 27 and in Los Angeles at the Annenberg Center from June 18 – 29. Don’t miss it.