Horror on the arctic seas: Lizzie Nunnery on her play about the liberation of Narvik

The Liverpudlian folk-singer has written the drama she always wanted to write, drawing upon her grandfather’s shocking experiences of war at sea

Over the past 10 years, Lizzie Nunnery has pursued an unusual dual career, both as a playwright and as a singer-songwriter on the folk circuit. Or perhaps that’s not so unusual, given that she comes from Liverpool. “I grew up going to the Everyman, where new plays were always packed with songs,” she says. “They wouldn’t be billed as musicals, though – it was just expected that there would be singing in them. I’ve always been inspired by something Willy Russell said: when he gets an idea, he never knows if it’s going to turn into a scene or a song. The best ones find their way into both.”

Nunnery’s debut play, Intemperance, was an extraordinarily accomplished drama about Liverpool’s Irish-Scandinavian underclass, written in the dark, moralistic fashion of her literary hero, Henrik Ibsen. It appeared at the Everyman in 2007 when Nunnery was 25, shortly before her first album Company of Ghosts made it to Radio 2’s folk records of the year. But it has taken a while for both halves of Nunnery’s creativity to fuse – and the result is Narvik, a folk drama inspired by Nunnery’s grandfather, a naval radio operator who sailed with the north Atlantic convoys during the second world war.

Lizzie Nunnery singing with husband Vidar Norheim
Soundscapes … Lizzie Nunnery singing with husband Vidar Norheim Photograph: Lizzie Nunnery/PR Company Handout

“It’s a play I had always wanted to write, but its form kept eluding me,” Nunnery says. “The story of Norway’s occupation is so complex: I had to find a way of representing English, German, Norwegian and Russian voices all at the same time.”

It was the soundscape, developed with her Norwegian husband and regular musical collaborator Vidar Norheim, that provided the key. For Narvik’s first run, presented by Box of Tricks at Liverpool Playhouse in 2015, Nunnery’s skein of contemporary sea shanties was electronically enhanced by Norheim and an onstage band. “That really unlocked my grandfather’s experiences for me,” Nunnery says. “As a wireless operator, his life was all about listening – and I wanted the play to express the enigma of the radio room, the sounds of sonar signals, coded instructions and fragments of intercepted transmissions.”

Winston Churchill identified the Arctic port of Narvik as vital in order to blockade the Nazi war effort. The two battles fought for the town in April 1940 were among the first Allied successes of the war. Even so, it’s a theatre of conflict that has received little attention in drama and literature. “The fighting was vicious,” Nunnery says, “at times practically hand-to-hand. Yet there was a code of honour in which neither side left enemy sailors to drown.”

Perhaps the most harrowing revelation is that the heaviest British losses were self-inflicted. “If a ship took a direct hit, it was procedure to close the hatches even if there were still men on the lower decks,” Nunnery says, this being the only way to save the ship. “My grandfather only spoke of this once, but he told me how he had to follow orders, ignoring the screams of drowning men below.”

Nunnery’s grandfather died in 2015 at the age of 91, just missing being able to see the work he inspired. “But he was immensely proud of the fact that he was among the flotilla that returned the Norwegian royal family to Oslo after the war,” Nunnery says.

Having married Norheim five years ago, Nunnery now has a half-Norwegian son, named Henrik after her idol. “When I went over to Oslo to meet Vidar’s family, the first thing I wanted to do was to visit Ibsen’s apartment. I touched his writing desk. I think I was hoping to pick up the vibrations.”

Lizzie Nunnery’s play with songs Narvik.
‘Its form kept eluding me’ … Lizzie Nunnery’s play with songs, Narvik. Photograph: Alex Mead/Decoy Media

Something must have stirred as, in addition to Narvik, Nunnery has three other projects coming to fruition this year. In April, she presents The People Are Singing at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. This is a collaboration with Ukrainian director Tamara Trunova for which she travelled to Kiev to meet people who had participated in the Maidan protests of February 2014. “I suppose I’m drawn to stories of occupation and resilience,” Nunnery says, “though most of the Ukrainians I spoke to are tired of being portrayed as victims. I hope it will be received as an optimistic piece.”

Later in the summer Nunnery, Norheim and fellow musician Martin Heslop will be staging Horny Handed Tons of Soil at Liverpool’s Unity theatre – a film and music event inspired by the poetry of Adrian Henri to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Mersey Sound anthology. “The Liverpool poets were another huge influence on me,” Nunnery says. “Adrian Henri’s house was round the corner from where I now live in Toxteth. The show is about how the area has always been left for dead, but keeps springing back to life.”

Hostile waters … ships in the Atlantic during the second world war
Hostile waters … ships in the Atlantic during the second world war Photograph: Corbis via Getty

When it was announced that the Everyman would be establishing its first permanent acting company since the 1970s, Nunnery was a natural choice for in-house dramatist. Her contribution is a new play entitled The Sum, which she describes as “an angry comedy about the mathematics of austerity – how we seem to have reverted to Victorian distinctions about the deserving and undeserving poor”. Being a true Everyman drama, it will be bursting with songs, which Nunnery is working flat-out to finish off.

“They’re turning out to be as close to straightforward pop songs as I’ve ever written,” she says. “But then again, the Mersey sound has always just been rebel music with an infectious beat.”


Alfred Hickling

The GuardianTramp

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