In conversation with Lizzie Nunnery

Following their hugely successful touring productions of Plastic Figurines and Chip Shop Chips, Manchester theatre company Box of Tricks is set to visit HOME Manchester from Tuesday 31st January–Saturday 4th February with last year’s critically acclaimed new play, Narvik, by award-winning playwright Lizzie Nunnery.

By Manchester's Finest | Last updated 1 February 2017

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Following their hugely successful touring productions of Plastic Figurines and Chip Shop Chips, Manchester theatre company Box of Tricks is set to visit HOME Manchester from Tuesday 31st January–Saturday 4th February with last year’s critically acclaimed new play, Narvik, by award-winning playwright Lizzie Nunnery.

Along with director Hannah Tyrrell-Pinder, Nunnery brings to life tales told by naval veterans, and stories of her grandfather’s time in the Navy.

Nunnery’s latest play brings to life a powerful story of love, guilt, heroism and betrayal.

How special has it been for you to create something that was inspired by your Grandfather?
It’s been really special, for quite a number of years I’ve wanted to write something that was inspired by his story of World War II and the Arctic convoys. I’m really grateful to Box of Tricks for encouraging me to explore these stories further and to ask my Grandfather lots more questions. He died in February 2015 but it meant that we actually had lots of brilliant conversations that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. There were a lot of questions I probably wouldn’t have got to ask him if I wasn’t working on the play.

So it feels really lovely now to bring these stories to the stage and to be inspired by the accounts he told me.

Is there anything in particular from your Grandfather’s telling of his experiences that was the driving force behind your inspiration?
He was part of the flotilla that brought crowned Prince Olav back to Oslo at the end of the Second World War after the Nazi occupation of Norway. The Prince had been hiding out in London during the war; the British Navy sailed back to Oslo with him and that was a moment my Grandfather talked a lot about. He was very proud; he talked about how glorious it was.

In a way the play was inspired by a mix of those kinds of positive memories and more horrific memories that he also talked about. At one point he had to follow orders and close off the deck of his ship that had just been hit. The lower decks were flooding so they were ordered to close the hatches and seal them off even though there were still men down there. My Grandad could hear the men banging on the pipes as they tried to get out. The experience obviously really traumatised him and so it was the contrast of those two kinds of emotions that fascinated me and drove me to write the story.

What was your process of growing Narvik from script to stage?

We did a ten minute version of it at the Everyword Festival four years ago – Liverpool Everyman’s new writing festival.

So I wrote a couple of scenes and a song, working with Hannah as director and working with Martin Heslop and Vidar Norheim on music. We were really excited by the audience’s response and Hannah and I then did lots of research into World War II. We went to museums and we read lots of other first-hand accounts of men who had been in the Arctic convoy and in Norway during the war. We did a workshop week where we developed about 50 minutes of it and invited an audience; we received feedback and from there I went away and wrote the first full draft. I was really lucky to have a lot of support and it was a really collaborative process from the beginning.

You’ve said before that the story of Norway’s occupation is a complex tale to tell especially when finding a way of representing English, German, Norwegian and Russian voices. How did you eventually master this and what was your research process?

It was written over a long period of time, so went through that developmental process where we saw and learned other people’s perspectives which made it easier to construct such a complex story. It was really important from the beginning to write an international story that wasn’t just going to be about Britain.

Through explaining one man’s war, a play that’s partly about Norway and Germany with parts even set in Russia we were able to write a collection of voices and I love the idea of that.

When they’re on the ship within the play, the main character Jim works in the wireless rooms so he hears all kinds of different voices coming through on the radio. We used that device really to help make sense of why there would be songs in different languages in the play as well.

Would you describe Narvik as a musical or a play which features musical numbers?
It’s got music almost throughout rather than just musical numbers. There’s a live soundtrack that almost never stops during the 1 hour 20 minutes of the production.
This was our ambition from the beginning, to make a play with music and that didn’t separate out the two art forms. It allowed the music and the dialogue to really interact and have one to support the other.

There are songs within it but there’s also a lot of soundtrack, compositions running under dialogue and under monologues and it creates quite an intense experience.
In a way you could call it a musical but the only reason we haven’t is because that carries a certain expectation about its style.

Is there anything in this production that you’re particularly proud of?
I think the second to last scene is probably my favourite, which is quite a strange thing to say, because it’s quite harrowing really, as it often is when you almost get to the end of a story. It’s when all of the characters confront the truth and have to look at these difficult things within themselves.

It’s also a scene which features the Norwegian character Else who the central character Jim falls in love with. I really did enjoy writing her and it felt very special to me that I was getting to bring that particular Norwegian and female perspective to the stage.

It’s taking a look at these women who lived in an occupied country for over four years while they’re own men basically disappeared. I find that really compelling and moving as a true story and wanted to bring some of that to life through that character. It also really looks at some of the moral difficulty that comes with living under occupation as well.

Is this your first production to run at HOME?
It is and I’m so excited about the play opening there; it’s such an incredible venue and such an amazing thing for the North West to have. It has brilliant theatre spaces.

You have two other productions set to run later this year – how difficult has this been to manage and are there any similarities between Narvik and the other two pieces of theatre?
There are links and themes – the show I’ve got at the Royal Exchange (The People are Singing) in April is developed and directed by the Ukrainian director Tamara Trunova and definitely takes a theme of identity and conflict which are also strong themes in Narvik.

We’ve taken a very different perspective on The People are Singing – it’s a bit of a dark fairy tale and in some ways it’s a bit more symbolic in style than Narvik.

The Son which is playing at the Everyman Theatre is very different because it’s set in present day Liverpool and it’s in no way about war. It does look at outsiders and underdog characters and also looks at survival when people in authority deliver difficult orders – so I’d say that’s probably the link between all three shows.

Do you have any more productions planned for the future?
I’ve got a show at the Unity in July which is more of a live piece of poetry and music which is inspired by the Mersey poets and in particular Adrian Henry. I’m creating that with Martin Heslop and Vidar Norheim who I worked with on Narvik.

Beyond that I would love to do more work with Box of Tricks. Hannah and I have got lots of ideas we’d like to explore. I was saying earlier about how proud I am of the Else character and the story she inspired, so Hannah and I would like to further explore the role of women in the war and their forgotten stories that have been written out of history. That’s a project for the future I think.