BWW Interview: Bronagh Gallagher Talks GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY
Actress and musician Bronagh Gallagher's work ranges from The Commitments, Pulp Fiction and Stars Wars on screen to War Horse on stage, as well as touring and recording albums with her band. Her latest project is Conor McPherson's Girl from the North Country, which incorporates Bob Dylan songs - it's currently in previews at the Old Vic.
What appealed to you about the show?
The fact that it's written by Conor, who I've worked with before - I'm a great fan of his brilliant writing. I'm also a huge Dylan fan, and I was intrigued to figure out how it would all come together.
I love singing, I have my own band that I tour with regularly - we've been on the road now for the last six years with three different albums - and I love acting too, and I love working in London! So the whole project was very appealing.
How has Conor incorporated Dylan's music?
I know think anyone's taking it lightly - you don't put Dylan on stage without a strong play to put its arms around those songs. Conor's chosen some really wonderful actors to tell the story he's written, and you can really feel the work he's put into it over the last couple of years, curating a story of this depth.
It's really seeing Dylan as a modern-day prophet, how he delves into human emotion. He shows hard life can be and also how extraordinary, he has that ability to talk about politics and come at us with songs questioning the entire destiny of human beings and how wrong we can get it.
Lining Conor up alongside someone of the depth of Dylan is really incredible. Conor wasn't necessarily going to be a playwright - he studied philosophy and English - so it's an amazing combination of contemporaries and writers, of great thinkers. I definitely think it's going to make a mark.
Was the show fully formed or have you done a lot of workshopping?
Very much workshopping, from February, and there was a previous workshop a year ago. Then it's been weeks of persistent grafting to get this beast to the stage. Even after we opened we're back in the theatre to rework parts - it's still metamorphosing. We've been lucky to have the time to really get it right and put something strong up there.
Tell us a bit about the play's setting
It's in 1934 and it's in Duluth, Minnesota, where Dylan was from. It's people during the Great Depression from different walks of life who've ended up in this halfway house, chasing money or just trying to survive really. Lots of people are in bad shape, but there are positive stories as well - hope that the road ahead is survival. It's a pretty dense story.
My character is there with her husband and child, and we've got something to hide. We're there under cover of darkness trying to avoid having this secret we're protecting being unearthed. It's a shady past and a shady story, and we haven't been entirely honest, so it all unfolds in this house.
They came from an affluent background - my husband, played by Stanley Townsend, did quite well in the engineering world - so they had a nice lifestyle, and then things went very wrong...
Has it been fun building all that history together?
Absolutely - and with Jack Shalloo as well, who plays our son. It's been really fun working with the voice coach too, figuring out where they're from and their history, patching it all together. It's that wonderful make-believe part of telling a story on stage.
What's it like having Conor directing as well?
The last job I did with him was 17 years ago, Dublin Carol. We ended up doing a makeshift version here at the Old Vic actually - the Royal Court hadn't reopened yet because the builders were behind. The audience sat on the stage and we did it in the back scenery dock!
It's wonderful being back in a room with him, seeing how he handles the material. I'm so impressed at his musical abilities - how he's merged songs with story and puts a show of this level and complexity on stage. It's not just a musical, not just a play - it's a play with music at its core.
How were the songs chosen?
They're very well chosen for each of these characters - they're almost recaps of what's happened to them or declarations or questions put out to the audience. The songs would have guided Conor in which characters to extract or embellish from them, so there are some from famous Dylan songs you'll recognise.
But more than that, these people really embody some of his concerns, like the quest for understanding and to be free of pain. It's like those lines from "Jokerman": "Shedding off one more layer of skin,/Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within".
Are you channelling Dylan or doing your own version?
Definitely everybody's found their singing version - it's more about the character and their world. And you can't really emulate someone as unique as Dylan. He's a prophet, he's a master, he's the greatest!
When did you become a Dylan fan?
My parents always played lot of blues and soul, and Neil Young and Bob Dylan too. I got properly into Dylan at 16 when I first heard "Blood on the Tracks" - it really blew my mind. Then "Blonde on Blonde", "Highway 61", and we're tapping into that later gospel sound too, which I love.
As a songwriter yourself, what do you particularly admire about his work?
Musically, the way the man writes songs - no one really understands it. It's a unique approach. From a lyrics point of view, the massive inspiration is his honesty. That's really key to gripping you at the heart, even if it's quite vicious.
I'm constantly learning as a songwriter when not to sing as well, to let the music evolve. The beginnings of his songs are always brilliant - an introduction that goes on longer than you think would work. His freedom, how unmanicured but still clear it is - he went for it and really believed in the power of his message. And bringing together all those different collaborators was just incredible.
Are you getting to play in the show?
I am, I'm playing drums. Michael Shaeffer, who's the reverend, is playing drums too. And we've got a fantastic band on stage with us.
Is it much different playing and singing while in character?
I'm kind of glad I've got all the years of gigging under my belt, because you can just get up there and do it. Certainly there are elements that are similar, like really telling the story - lots of my songs have stories in them as well.
Whether it's performing with the band or doing theatre, it's all entertainment - it's taking people away from what's going on outside. That's why we really need the arts, for that moment of peace and escape. Of course you hope we can learn from history as well, but human behaviour is repetitive throughout the centuries, so all you can do it stick together in a community. That's what the arts do so well - they help and support people.
Are you mainly based in Dublin?
Yes, I've been there for the last four years. I love London as well - I work more here than anywhere, so it's a home from home. I have great friends and family here.
As soon as we finish in October, I'm back out on the road with the band touring in Europe and Ireland. I love doing it all. There's nothing like live work, having that audience reaction and participation.
Were the arts accessible to you growing up?
Not as accessible, because I was in Derry in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, but when music did come to town my parents always took us. I remember The Drifters! And the Orchard Gallery was a great platform for political art. I left at 17 and went to Dublin - I could see much more theatre and music there.
Now there's much better access - bands and artists will tour around Dublin and Belfast, and you can travel more easily, so you can go to London for the weekend.
Finally, why should people come see Girl From the North Country?
It's a very thoughtful outing, a dark subject with people trying really hard to survive the hard edges of life. Parts of it are deeply moving, and there's these little pockets of silver lining along with the tough stuff. It's deep writing, deep music, questioning life and its challenges, and hopefully entertaining too. It's just a beautiful piece, pulling something out of the human soul.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan