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Interview: Lizzie Nunnery

The Mancunion’s Theatre editor Brogen Campbell talks to writer Lizzie Nunnery about her play ‘Narvik’

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Lizzie Nunnery has embarked on a dual-career, for the past ten years she works as a playwright and a singer-songwriter. The Liverpudlian’s debut play, Intemperance, was an accomplished drama about Liverpool’s Irish-Scandinavian underclass, written in the style of her literary hero, Henrik Ibsen. It appeared at the Everyman in 2007 when Nunnery was 25, shortly before her first album Company of Ghosts made it to Radio 2’s folk records of the year. Nunnery takes her new play Narvik to Manchester’s HOME theatre.

How did you first come up with the idea to write the play Narvik?
It was through conversations with Hannah at Box of Tricks. We worked together on a couple of other things and she suggested to me over a cup of tea about four years ago that she would be interested in bring together the music that I make and the playwriting that I do. We wanted to create a play with songs. From the start actually she was really interested in doing something quiet ambitious with the music, so it wouldn’t just be a scene and then a song. Both of us always wanted the music to thread through the play almost like a live sound track. That was really exciting for me from the start.

We began with that and then started talking about existing ideas I might have for stories. My grandfather was in the artic convoys in the Second World War and for a long time I had an idea that I would like to write a story that was inspired by his experiences. Not a true story because it’s nice to be freer than when you are writing, but something that draws upon his strange and particular war that he had. It’s an unusual version of the war that a lot of people don’t know about. As soon as I came up with that and started to talk to Hannah about it, we quickly realised that memories as a theme and music go together really well.

There is a particular relationship between music and memory. A song immediately takes you back to a certain place or a certain person. So that’s how we structured the songs through the play. They occur in naturalistic contexts. A character might sing to one. For instance, the central characters father sings him songs when he was a little boy, but when those songs come back later they are slightly transformed and immediately bring back that memory of the father. It started to make sense and we did a lot of development. We had days where we had walls covered in maps and lists of ships. We did loads of research into the Second World War and those sailors and really started to piece it all together.

So what came first the songs or the script?
They happened at once. I found that as I was writing the script I was getting ideas for lyrics and initially writing them in quite a rough way, then really redrafting the lyrics as I was redrafting the dialogue. I was living with ideas and melodies that were going round and round in my head. It became a bit more solid over time. In 2015 we got into rehearsals for the first run of the play that was in the Liverpool Playhouse. Myself and the three musicians who are in the play took the bare bones of the songs and arranged them and expanded them and developed them further.  Creating compositions beyond the songs that threaded through the play. This aided transitions through the scenes. All the performers, the three actors and three musicians are on the stage throughout. The actors sing and play percussion too so in a way everyone is part of the music. The music is present all the time. The music is a storytelling tool.

How long did the process take you to write the play?
I think it took me roughly four years. We did a 10 minute version in the Everyword Festival in Liverpool, which was about four years ago. I wrote that incredibly quickly. I wrote the first song for that piece. The Everyman Theatre wanted to stay involved as we developed the piece so that’s why Narvik did its first run there. So from that 10 minute version we did a week’s development with three actors at the playhouse. At that point we had 40 minutes. That was a lovely way to work to cut things there in the room and get the actors to try things out.  From there I went away and did a full draft. It’s been a lovely process as a writer. I’ve never felt rushed. Everyone has been really tuned in to what we want to achieve and the point of inspiration. We’ve always had the same ambitious for it

What is your standard approach to writing a play?
I think every play is different. I don’t have a standard approach to writing all my plays. It changes depending on the idea of the play.

What is the overall main aim of the play?
I think the ambition was to treats live music in an unusual way through its form in the play. The other ambition was to put this little unknown part of World War Two on stage to show what these men lived through.  Bigger than that I think there is a question at the centre of the play about identity and morality. What defines a person? Ultimately the character (Jim) says you are what you do. This along with the idea of how do we reconcile ourselves with the past are central to the play.

Were you keen to make sure this play based on history was relevant to a contemporary audience?
Yes because I think the only way to make a history play work is if it is relevant to now. It’s got to answer that question of why now? Why this story on the stage now? I actually think it is more relevant since 2015. The themes of moral confusion and the relationships between different countries, the idea of different countries being tangled up with each other, how far they are and shouldn’t be? All these themes feel really relevant to today. I keep hearing that we live in a post-truth age and I do feel like it’s a moment of slight bewilderment. We don’t know who to trust in the world. Or how to interpret the world necessarily at this point? I feel those ideas are tied up with the central character who is unsure of himself and everything around him. He doesn’t know where he stands in this conflict. Is he the good guy, bad guy or something in-between?  I think it has been quite fortuitous.

What advice would you give to young writers?
The huge thing for me was taking part in the young writers programme at the Everyman Theatre. I would recommend people to join groups like that and attend these courses. Join all the mailing lists for literary departments and theatres that are local to them. Just keep an eye out for opportunities. I do think in theatre so much is based on, one, a relationship with people who run those theatres and two, an understanding of the work they produce and the audience they cater to.  You can only really do that by getting in the building. Make sure you see lots of shows. Work out how you can enter into a conversation with these theatres. Beyond that, just keep writing. Keeping writing until you have a finished play that you can slam on people’s desks, so you can prove how good you are. This will give you a calling card to say here I am, a writer and here’s my script.

Why should people see Narvik?
It’s a really gripping love story with a really surprising ending. It has great momentum to it. It rockets along. Lots of pace and energy. I’m very proud of the music. The cast are phenomenal. A beautiful set.

What else are you working on currently?
I’m redrafting a play called ‘The Sum’ which will be going on in May at Liverpool Everyman.  Writing a play for the Royal Exchange studio to be performed in April. I’m also creating in collaboration with other brilliant people a piece of live poetry and music for the Unity Theatre to celebrate 50 years since the Mersey Sound.

Lizzie Nunnery’s play Narvik is being performed at HOME Theatre from the 31st of January to the 4th February. You can buy tickets here.