Saturday, October 5, 2019

Downton Abbey and Girl from the North Country

From the sublime to another kind of sublime - yesterday, the film of Downton Abbey, and today, a musical woven from the songs of Bob Dylan, Girl from the North Country. Talk about a contrast!

Downton - glittering, frothy, absurd, yet fabulous, so stunning to look at, costumes, sets, countryside - just the kitchen set alone is worth the price of admission, you've never seen so much gleaming copper. And those actors, every single one perfect for the role: Barrow, Carson, the handsome "republican" Tom Branson, so solid and real, you cannot imagine anyone else playing those characters. Not to mention the very best: Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Penelope Wilton, and the rest, a master class in acting. It's a delicious treat that does not linger in the gut, but while it's floating by - heaven. (I thought of the two actors who insisted on leaving the TV show early and whose characters had to be killed off, one in childbirth and the other in a car accident; they've hardly been seen since. What could have prompted them to jettison such a phenomenal success? I wonder what they think now.)

I did read one review that, while raving, also mentioned tumbrels and guillotines. Because the wealth on display, the rooms full of silver, the strangling pomp, the scores of servants - no wonder there are revolutions! If all aristocrats were as enlightened and kind as the Crawleys, the world would be a different place. But of course, it's fantasy.

North Country is the opposite, a very dark oddity. The Irish playwright Conor McPherson took the entire catalogue of Dylan's brilliant songs, picked some, and wove a story around them; unlike Mamma Mia!, the songs are not part of a goofy plot, they're just sung, hauntingly, beautifully, by the cast of twenty. But ye gods, it's a gloomy story, set in Dylan's birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota during the Depression, in a boarding house full of misfits. I'd read the Ben Brantley rave in the NYT, so I felt something was off for this cast. Mirvish is selling seats at a discount, that's why I was there, and it felt like they were all working too hard in a half-full house, before they set off for Broadway. The direction by the playwright feels harsh and forced. And yet the music, one incredible song after another sung in a completely new context, is so heavenly, you could listen forever. Dylan the genius, born 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota. Miracles do happen.

And then out into a chilly Saturday afternoon. It was a COLD ride home. I had to take the deck plants in last night, it went down to 2, but it's going up again for a bit, they tell us. I thought, as I peddled madly home, that despite the many downsides to living in a metropolis - noise, traffic, chaos - it's worth it all to partake of the cultural banquet always on offer. One need only choose from myriad options and go. As I so often do. Plus today I got from Cabbagetown to Lee Valley and then the Queen Alex Theatre on King Street West entirely in safe bike lanes. Miracles do happen.

I saw Downton with one of my dearest friends, Suzette, a screenwriter and friend since university days. Afterward we ate piles of halal Lebanese food and talked shop. I confessed that I'm stymied right now, my memoir in limbo, my essays going nowhere, and now a giant pile of family letters - what to do? She reminded me that we should only do the work we're passionate about. And I remembered - oh yes, I care about this stuff. I'd forgotten. Still not sure how to proceed, but it was good to remember - there's no point doing this work that nobody gives a damn about unless we're truly hooked by what we're working on.

While I was downtown, before the theatre, I went to Lee Valley Tools on an urgent mission. This morning, I was horrified; there on the deck was a dead bird with a speckled breast, its neck broken. It must have flown into my sliding glass doors, the first time that's happened. So I went to Lee Valley to get a decal to paste on and make sure it doesn't happen again. Heartbreak - we're reading about millions of birds vanishing from the earth, and there, a tender little life, lost in my garden.

But - as my dear, sorely missed Wayson used to say - onward.

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