New Tricks: A Nordic adventure… 02/09/2014

As Box of Tricks’ organisational development continues, our NEW TRICKS initiative develops new plays from North West playwrights with support from leading local theatres.

Here we hear from playwright Lizzie Nunnery about NARVIK, which she is developing at Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse with Box of Tricks’ Artistic Director Hannah Tyrrell-Pinder…

What’s ‘Narvik’ about and what was the inspiration for the piece?

It began with an interest in a lesser told version of World War II. I’m married to a Norwegian and my grandfather served in the Navy in Norway during the war, so I was keen to unearth that experience of war fought at sea and in the freezing climates of Norway and the Arctic. I’m also fascinated by the experience of the Norwegians under Nazi occupation and the very harsh reaction to traitors after the war, so we began to weave that in through the character of Else.

The starting point for the story came from the true tales my Grandy has told me over the years but as I started to write it quickly morphed in to fiction. However, that didn’t stop us doing lots of research! Hannah and I have been reading true accounts of sailors and researching movements of war ships to make sure our story is possible and plausible. So at this point it’s the fictionalised composite of many men’s tales, and ultimately the story of one man’s war: how he survives it and how he is unable to understand it. I’m keen to pull apart the notion of heroism and show the tremendous fear the Arctic sailors felt- not of action but of inaction. What if when the moment came they just couldn’t live up to it?

Why combine music and text in a play, isn’t that just a musical?

I think live music on stage brings an immediate energy to a show. Writers are always trying to make things happen on stage – and with live music you’ve got something audio, visual and physical happening in the moment. For that reason I’ve been keen for a long time to work music in to a play but wanted to find a way to root it in the storytelling. We want to move away from characters breaking out of dramatic action to sing songs directly to the audience and instead find a more unusual form. As soon as we began thinking about life on board ship we realised that we were in a very percussive, immersive audio world: the sailors tapping code, receiving radio signals, listening to the clang of metal and the whir of the engine… and that we could draw this in to the performance, blurring the lines of actor/musician. We’re keen to find a way for the text to interact with the music, one explaining or illuminating the other, rather than simply providing a live soundtrack or adding a bit of atmosphere. It’s a tall order but the workshop week was a big step in the right direction. And of course we’ll have a few songs as well… the best moments in musicals are when a song cuts to the heart of a character’s experience in a way that dialogue can’t… so we’ll try and do some of that.

What’s the point of an R&D week, can’t you just write the play on your own?

There’s an awful lot a writer can do in a room on their own and some projects are best served that way. But with ‘Narvik’ I feel I’ve got a chance to be a key part of the making of a show, not just a play – to test out the elements and the possibilities and happily throw away what doesn’t work. It was an idea that came out of conversation with Hannah so from the start it was a collaboration, and as we drew live music and visual ideas in to the discussion it made perfect sense to open up that collaboration: to get more voices and more ideas in the room and test out what worked on stage. I’m sure that the show we arrive at will be uniquely marked by the making process. What we get to will undoubtedly be something I could never have come up with in isolation.

What did you achieve during the week?

So much! More than I ever expected we would. We started the week with some musical ideas and a handful of fairly rough scenes and came out with fifty minutes of music and text covering the whole period of the war. We also arrived at some very firm ideas about what we liked and disliked within that material: what worked and what didn’t quite make the mark. I’m a writer that loves throwing things away. Working out what you don’t want to do is half the battle.

Hearing actors read the work and getting their input is always invaluable: it sets off alarms, highlights gaps, guides you to the work you need to do. And I did a lot of that script work during the week, writing over dinner hour and at the end of the day. I was also darting in and out of the ‘musician’s room’ working with Vidar Norheim and Martin Heslop on creating melodies, adapting lyrics and giving thoughts on their compositions. When we got to Thursday we started rehearsing for our showing of work on the Saturday. It was a strange and unique experience being a musician and a writer in the room at once but really exhilarating to feel the response of the audience from up on the stage. I certainly couldn’t avoid knowing the moments that hit and the ones that missed.

What’s next for you and the project?

A full first draft is next… so it’s back to me alone in a room. But of course the creative conversations are ongoing between myself and Hannah, the other musicians and also the dramaturg Lindsay Rodden. As I’m writing I’ll continue to meet with Martin and Vidar to make sure the music evolves alongside the script and to hear new compositions or songs. I feel like we’ve made some brilliant broad brush strokes: big bright bold exciting ones… and now I have to get my magnifying glass out and check all the detail,make sure I’m serving the characters well, serving the subject matter well, that we’re saying something surprising and illuminating- something worth hearing.

– Lizzie Nunnery