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Playwright Lizzie Nunnery talks Narvik

Narvik tells a story of love, guilt, heroism and betrayal all set before a treacherous World War II backdrop. To lean more, we invited playwright Lizzie Nunnery to discuss her personal inspirations behind the project and the challenges of crafting the show’s musical score…

How does Narvik – a play about the Second World War still resonate with you?

LN: The starting point was Hannah the Director who was asking me if I had any ideas for a play with music as she was interested in me performing in a play that I’d written. We got talking about my Grandfather’s stories of being in the Navy in World War Two, something he never spoke about for years and years. Then in the last ten years of his life he started to talk about it every now and again. Out of the blue he would tell you something incredible or quite horrific that had been put away for decades really. It was almost like at that stage of his life he felt the need to repeat these things and make sure they were known. Some of them were funny stories but I think the naval experience was very particular, especially for those who were in the Arctic. It’s a version of World War Two that doesn’t necessarily get looked at all that often, it’s quite different from the stereotypical World War Two story that we think about. The fact that there were all these boys freezing to death who came from ordinary working class backgrounds and suddenly were out there sharing boots, sliding round on frozen vomit on the decks and enduring these incredible conditions.

So we started with my Grandfather’s stories and me and Hannah the Director read an awful lot of other real accounts and gathered a lot of other information together so what we ended up with is totally fictionalised, but it draws on real events in these other men’s lives. I think the sea is such a great metaphor and I love the idea of being able to write about memory and conflict using that metaphor. Actually I think nearly all theatre that works is about the difficulty of human connection and there’s 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 – reach out and connect with each other and often failing. I wanted to use the metaphor of the sea in that way. 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, destroyed and how difficult those relationships became under the pressure of war. The sea is the image that represents that gap.

With regard to the amount of research you did, were there any particular stories that stood out for you that may have corresponded with your Grandfather’s ones?

LN: Yes, I was really interested in the fact that he’d had these strange days and nights in the Arctic. We read stories about people whose ships went down and they ended up waiting at Murmansk to be posted to another ship or they might just dock in Archangel, way up in the North and be waiting for weeks or months for the next thing to happen. The strangeness of that and mixing with the locals; the strangeness of the Russians being the enemy and then they became allies – all those tensions fascinated me. I remember my Grandfather’s stories, about how drunk they would get on home brew – basically ‘firewater’ in translation, local Russian vodka – and how that created strange, dangerous situations between the men. These men who are all cooped up together and have endless frustrations and being away from home – they’d all get off their faces and fight. I suppose that setting really fascinated me and I was looking particularly at those stories and stories of being on boats in the Arctic, fighting against the conditions and against the enemy. That really interested both of us.

It’s almost man versus nature in many ways. It’s his own personal nature, whether he agrees with some aspects of what he’s fighting for or fighting against but he’s also fighting against the people who have a different view but who are on his side.

LN: Yes, that was something that really moved us reading a lot of these naval stories, that everyone had the sea as a common enemy, Germans or Britons. There were lovely accounts – after a German ship had been hit by a torpedo, they pulled out as many men as they possibly could. There may have been instances where that didn’t happen but we were reading stories that claimed that was always the case, that actually the enemy had always been the sea. They were always allies against the sea, those frozen waters.

How did that fit in with the music? Was it difficult trying to display the lack of things going on?

LN: I think the trick with story structure is that you pick the most dramatic moments. So you know that they’ve got hours of tension and boredom but you’re not going to put that on the stage, you’re going to pick the times where things are happening. I wouldn’t like people to think that we’ve got lots of scenes with people sitting around, waiting for something to happen, we haven’t! Hopefully, that offstage tension and anxiety feeds into these explosive moments of drama when the character Jim does have to contend with his ship being attacked or when he is confronted with his lost love after the war. We’ve hopefully focused on those explosive episodes. The nice thing we’ve hit upon is that the music operates as part of his memory and the whole play is told through the filter of memory.

We start with the central character Jim at night time, he’s 90 and falls over in his basement and then we move back into these key incidents in his life which he’s never resolved, confronted or understood. We’re playing around with songs in all different kinds of ways, sometimes as I said before, two literal ways – what we found worked was that if each song was an echo from an old experience so there’s a song in there that his Dad sung to him as a child or a song that his girlfriend in Norway, who is at the center of the play, sang. Once you’ve planted these songs in a literal context you can take them up and and do weird things with them. They become part of the soundtrack but we understand why they are there as they are part of the fabric of his memory and they won’t leave him alone so that’s why we keep hearing them.

Do you find that your work, regardless of whether it’s music, poetry or theatre, gravitates towards the darkness in that there’s more darkness in humanity than we care to admit?

LN: I don’t know, it depends on what you mean by darkness really. It goes back to what I was saying before about human connections and the difficulty of it and that would mean you might take on issues that you might call dark like grief, separation or murder. I think it’s just about being brave and confronting difficult things. Audiences do like to look at them; audiences want to be pushed to interesting places and to have a good time as well.

This play has a band in it, it’s fun, we’re going to have big Russian folk songs and there are jokes. I think you need all that because it’s also part of the fabric of life and relationships and if you do something gritty it’s not very truthful, it’s not how people actually interact but at the same time I’ve always been aware that I don’t want to shy away from taking on challenging issues because audiences want to be challenged. I don’t think people want to go to the theatre to be reminded about things they already know – to be told stories they’re used to reading every day in the newspapers. I think theatre audience are clever, they want to be pushed.

Interview by Ian D. Hall

Narvik runs from Tue 31 Jan – Sat 04 Feb 2017. Find out more and book tickets here.

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