Themes of heroism, bravery – a struggle with identity – and a love story, underscored by an evocative musical soundscape, bring to life an often-neglected pocket of World War II history in Lizzie Nunnery’s new play Narvik.
Nunnery, a folk musician and playwright, brings her two careers together to guide her audience towards Nazi-occupied Norway, and the experiences of the British north Atlantic convoys, who sailed the treacherous waters in often shockingly harsh conditions.
Inspired by her grandfather, who served with the Arctic convoys as a radio operator, Narvik sieves through the memories of an elderly man Jim, rekindling days spent at sea, and a deeply buried relationship with a Norwegian woman he once loved.
“For a long time I kind of wanted to write something inspired by my grandfather’s stories about his war, when he was with the Arctic convoys,” says Nunnery.
She shared her ideas with director Hannah Tyrrell-Pinder at Manchester-based theatre company Box of Tricks, and the pair discovered a shared fascination with the human stories of World War II.
“Both of us had a lot to learn about that part of the war, which made it quite attractive to us,” says Nunnery.
“I did lots more research with my grandfather, which I probably wouldn’t have done otherwise. It meant I got to know him a lot better before he died. There are drops of his truth throughout the play, although the story itself is fiction.”
Nunnery’s grandfather sadly died, aged 91, before the play had its first run at the Liverpool Playhouse in 2015, but Nunnery says that he was pleased to know that she was sharing some of his stories.
Perhaps the biggest influence Nunnery’s grandfather had on the play was to inspire its evocative soundscape, which Nunnery developed with her Norwegian husband and regular musical collaborator Vidar Norheim.
“I was really struck by my grandfather’s descriptions of the sounds of the ships,” she explains.
“My grandfather was a person working in the wireless room, he was listening to morse code, voices on the radio, the hum of the engine; he went into great detail about that idea of the constant soundscape and it made perfect sense to look to that when we started to put it together.”
Some of the sounds her grandfather described were harrowing – when a ship took a direct hit, it was procedure to close the hatches to the lower decks – even if sailors remained trapped below.
“He described hearing men banging on the pipes to get out,” says Nunnery.
But there were glorious moments too – and it was the combination of these, with the horrors of war, that drew Nunnery in.
“He described feeling purposeful,” she says. “He had something to do, being part of such an important moment in history – many of the men never got to feel so purposeful again in their lives, and there was something very exciting about that.
“He was part of the flotilla that returned the Norwegian royal family to Oslo after the war. That was a really great memory for him. He recalled sailing into Oslo, through the fjords, and people who until very recently had been occupied were calling out and putting out their hands for bread because they were hungry.
“That contrast between the glories and the hard conditions really drew me in.”
Nunnery describes her grandfather as a very brave man, and admits that the central character of Narvik, Jim, who we meet in his basement as an elderly man before journeying with him back through his memories, has a more complicated relationship with ideas of heroism and bravery.
“Being a brave person isn’t necessarily the best material for drama,” she laughs.
“Jim really struggles with the sense of heroism and bravery. His story follows a crisis around identity, and plays with the idea that we never really know who we are before we’re tested.”
As well as a war story, Narvik has a love story at its heart – as Jim tries to trace a Norwegian woman he met and fell in love with in the years before.
Nunnery has long been interested in Norwegian history, writing and culture – a fascination which intensified when she met Norheim, with whom she now has a young son, Henrik.
“I was really fascinated by Scandinavia drama – Ibsen, Strindberg – and by the way those writers tell stories and their versions of Scandinavia. When I met my husband I suppose there’s something natural about wanting to understand someone better by understanding their country better,” she says.
“It’s a poetic landscape, it lends itself to the way that I write; the mountains and the water, and there’s something dark too about the landscape and the folk culture that’s a long way from the cosy, candlelit image of Scandinavia which seems to be popular at the moment.”
Although Nunnery has brought her music to playwriting before, she says that Narvik marks the first time she has entirely fused the two, with music at the very heart of the storytelling.
She adds that although it wasn’t part of her ambition at the time, the play also holds new meaning for examining more recent political events.
“It’s relatively recent history, just two generations removed, but the extremity of those experiences are very removed from our ordinary lives now,” she says.
“I think that history is a really useful way for us to analyse questions of moral difficulty – and it’s become more relevant now. It’s a play about the relationships between nations, and in the light of Brexit, some of the lessons of history feel a lot more pertinent.”
The fusing of music with playwriting seems to have sparked a trend for Nunnery, who is working on two other pieces, which also see her weave together her two creative strands.
In April, The People Are Singing opens at the Royal Exchange in Manchester – a collaboration with Ukrainian director Tamara Trunova, which saw her travel to Kiev for research.
“It’s also about identity and conflict,” says Nunnery. “There’s a lot of music again, Ukrainian and Russian folk songs.”
And in May, The Sum opens at the Everyman in Liverpool – as part of the theatre’s new rep company’s opening season.
“It really is special,” says Nunnery.
“We did our first day working with the actors and it was so exciting, there are 12 people in my show – I’ve never had such a big cast. It feels wonderful to be part of what seems to be quite an important part of Liverpool’s cultural history.”