We speak to Lizzie Nunnery, the writer of Narvik, a new play with music, set during the Second World War. Inspired by tales of Naval veterans, including Nunnery’s own grandfather, the play tells the tale of a man and a woman pulled together and torn apart by the war.
How does Narvik – a play about the Second World War – still resonate with you?
“The starting point for it was me and Hannah, the director, 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 10 years of his life he started to talk about it, 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 like 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 had but I think the naval experience he had was very particular, especially for those people who were in the Artic, and it’s a version of World War Two that doesn’t necessarily gets looked at all that often. It’s quite different from the typical stereotypical World War Two story that we think about – war films about that period, we think a lot about the RAF for example.
The fact that there were all these boys freezing to death in the Artic who came from ordinary working class backgrounds and suddenly they were out there, sliding round on frozen vomit on the decks and enduring these incredible conditions. They also endured this really strange situation of sometimes months of nothing happening, this endless fear that something catastrophic could happen at anytime, which I suppose is common to a lot of war situations, maybe all war situations, but there’s something about those mines buried under the sea and U-boats that could just slide under them that I think created a particularly tense and fraught experience.
We started with my Grandfather’s stories and me and Hannah read an awful lot of other real accounts and gathered a lot of other information together so what we’ve ended up with is totally fictionalized, but draws on real events in these other men’s lives, all these real experiences so hopefully it will be quite authentic and for me, I think 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 gap between the audience and the stage or the audience and the performer and we’re trying to bridge that gap and it therefore when it works, it reflects what we’re trying to do all our lives – trying to reach out and connect with each other and really often failing. So I kind of 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, how difficult those relationships became under the pressure of war and the sea is this image that represents that gap.”
How does the story fit with the music?
“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 are not going to put that on the stage, you’re going to pick the times when 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 and the music, the nice thing that we’ve hit upon is that the music operates as part of his memory and the whole play is told in a way 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, he’s never 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 centre of the play, sang. Once you’ve planted these songs in a literal context you can take them up and transform them 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.”
Narvik: The Marlowe Studio, Monday 13 February. Book here.