Playwright and songwriter Lizzie Nunnery talks to Northern Soul
Inspired by stories of her grandfather’s time in the Navy during World War Two and other tales from naval veterans, Narvik, the new play with songs produced by Manchester-based theatre company Box of Tricks, is just one of a whole host of projects this year penned by the award-winning Liverpool-based playwright and songwriter Lizzie Nunnery. Others include a new work inspired by poetry collection The Mersey Sound and, more specifically, poet Adrian Henri.
But first off is Narvik, a story of love, guilt, bravery and betrayal as a Liverpudlian man and a Norwegian woman are pulled together and torn apart by war.
“The starting point for it was the director Hannah Tyrrell-Pinder from Box Of Tricks asking me if I had any ideas for a play with music threaded through it as a key part of the narrative,” Nunnery says. “We got talking about my grandfather’s stories of being in the Navy in World War Two. For years and years and years he never talked about the war, then, maybe in the last ten years of his life, every now and again, just out of the blue, he would tell you something incredible or something quite horrific that had been put away for decades. It was almost as if at that stage of his life he felt the need to repeat these things and make sure that they were known. Some of them were funny stories, good times he’d had, but I think the naval experience he had was very particular, especially for those people who were in the Arctic.”
Nunnery is also a singer and songwriter, performing regularly with producer/composer (and husband) Vidar Norheim. Their full-length releases include Company of Ghosts and Black Hound Howling, and a splendidly-titled EP Songs of Drink and Revolution. She was one of the writers of the Liverpool Everyman production Unprotected, which was awarded the Amnesty International Award for Freedom of Expression, and her play The Swallowing Dark reopened the Liverpool Playhouse Studio. She has worked with Druid, Slung Low, The Gate, Trestle, Paines Plough and Cardboard Citizens, while her current commissions include the Liverpool Everyman and Unity theatres, the Royal Exchange in Manchester and the National Theatre.
For Narvik, she recalls that “we started the journey with a ten-minute play in Liverpool’s Everyword Festival 2013. The script and music were written within a week and at that point we knew our central character Jim, we knew it was a play about the disruption of war and memory, and we knew it was on some level a romance. Beyond that, we wanted to tell a story about Norway and about the Arctic, an unconventional journey through World War Two. The ten-minute version also made it clear that the use of songs and soundtrack helped to create a non-naturalistic world that allowed the story to be told through the prism of memory while remaining very live and spontaneous.
“Hannah and I started with my grandfather’s stories but then we read an awful lot of other real accounts and gathered a lot of other information together. What we’ve ended up with is totally fictionalised, but draws on real events and experiences in these other men’s lives. So hopefully it will be quite authentic. It’s about this man Jim who falls in love but who also has this separate friendship during the war and how those relationships were distorted and how difficult they became under the pressure of war. The sea is this image that represents that gap.”
She adds: “For me, the sea is such a great metaphor and I love the idea of being able to write about memory and about conflict using that metaphor. Actually I think that nearly all theatre that works is about the difficulty of human connection and there’s always that lovely metaphor in theatre that there’s a gap between the audience and the stage, or the audience and the performer, and we’re trying to bridge that gap. Therefore when it works, it reflects what we’re all trying to do in our lives, to reach out and connect with each other, often failing.”
Nunnery’s other commitments mean that, unlike in earlier versions of the play, she won’t be performing her songs live on the tour. But Norheim will be on stage throughout, as will Joe Hirons and the terrific folk singer Maz O’Connor, whose recent album The Longing Kind displayed an innate theatricality. You may have also heard her on the Sweet Liberties project.
“I’ve also got a show called The People Are Singing at the Royal Exchange Studio in April as part of the British Council’s World Stages project, and I’ve been working on that with a director in Kiev called Tamara Trunova,” Nunnery says. “The whole project is about getting directors from countries where they feel their work is being silenced or censored and getting that work on in Britain. It has been so exciting working with her and just trying to get my head around what has been happening in the Ukraine over the last few years, all the tragic and fascinating things she has gone through.”
With Norheim and Marin Heslop, as well as filmmaker Tim Brunsden, Nunnery has also been developing a piece for the Unity Theatre in Liverpool as part of the celebrations of The Mersey Sound. It’s 50 years since that iconic poetry book came out and events around the city include a Brian Patten adaptation at the Everyman and Roger McGough’s Summer With Monika, set to music and performed live at the Philharmonic.
“We’re creating a cross-disciplinary piece called Horny Handed Tons Of Soil, with live poetry and music as well as documentary films inspired by the poet Adrian Henri,” she explains. “We’re drawing on Adrian Henri’s ‘happenings’ because of course Adrian Henri wasn’t just a poet, he was a walking piece of art. We’re really trying to make a piece of work that’s weird enough that he might have approved of it. It’s going to be concentrating on the myth and magic of the Toxteth area, where he lived and did an awful lot of his work.
“It’s a response to his work, so I don’t think we’ll be using any of his words, although we might be projecting some of his images. I’ve been talking a lot to Catherine Marcangeli, Adrian’s wife, about ideas for the piece and she’s been really stressing the fact that it shouldn’t be nostalgic, it shouldn’t be hackneyed, that it needs to be a whole new poetic piece drawing on his anarchic spirit.”
As if that wasn’t quite enough to be going on with, a show that has been in development for a while is opening at the Liverpool Everyman in May.
“It just so happens that this year everything has collided,” she laughs. “But they’ve got their new rep company there now and it’s going to be in their first season. It’s called The Sum and it’s a contemporary play set, again, in Toxteth and it’s about austerity. That may not sound too appealing but it’s a proper, gritty, big-hearted drama about a woman who’s just about holding the sums, the maths, together in her life. But a couple of things go wrong – her partner loses his job and she’s on a zero hours contract – and suddenly the numbers don’t quite work. It explores the idea of how we value ourselves, as she starts to work out what she has got to offer and starts to get seduced by that horrible rhetoric of austerity that we’re only worth what we put in.
“But it’s kind of a magical play with songs in it and it’s as close to a musical as I’ve ever written. I’m redrafting that now and working on the Exchange show as well. So there’s plenty to do while I’m not on the road with Narvik.”
Main image: Lizzie Nunnery by Lucas Smith
Narvik is at HOME in Manchester until February 4, 2017, then tours until March 25 to venues including Theatre By The Lake, Keswick (February 8-9); York Theatre Royal (February 23); The Unity at the Bluecoat, Liverpool (February 27 to March 4); The Met, Bury (March 7-8); The Carriageworks, Leeds (March 9); and Harrogate Theatre (March 14-18).
To read Kevin’s review of Narvik, click here.
The People Are Singing is at the Royal Exchange Studio, April 6–8, 2017; The Sum is at Liverpool Everyman, May 6-20, then in rep from June 8-July 1; Horny Handed Tons of Soil is at Unity Theatre, Liverpool, July 13-15. Lizzie Nunnery has also written Snow Dragons as part of the National Theatre’s Connections 2017.
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