Blog: Lizzie Nunnery

The writer of Narvik, a new play with songs, tells us how the story was inspired by her grandfather – and homemade cake

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Some time four years ago I met for a cup of tea with Hannah Tyrrell Pinder of Box of Tricks Theatre in a café in the Northern Quarter in Manchester. I don’t remember the name of it. There were handpainted walls and second-hand furniture and homemade cake, and we talked about ways of colliding theatre and live folk music with storytelling. We talked about the navy in WWII, about the collision of a generation of young men with mass violence and a fragmenting Europe, about the boys who never came home and the boys who came home transformed. I remember clearly Hannah pointing out that those boys, the youngest of them, were now disappearing, so many of their stories dying with them. We’d had other chats about ideas, but I left that day with a head full up with pictures of the show we were going to make together– tingling with the possibilities.

My grandfather Bill Mothershaw was 18 when he went to war. He died in 2015 aged 91. I’d long wanted to write something inspired by his wartime experiences but it was Box of Tricks which pushed me to do it – to ask him the right questions before it was too late. I’m incredibly grateful for that. He had a sharp memory right to the end, but when I asked him about his war he certainly didn’t remember everything. I got fragments, impressions, scraps of information, feelings and images out of order. He once sailed on a ship called The Gazelle, he remembered the blue of the Atlantic and his eyes lit up when he described cutting through it: “Great days, Liz. You really felt you were doing something.” He remembered horrific things: shovelling bodies from the deck of a flooded ship, cornering and shooting German soldiers in Oslo at the end of the war, seeing Norwegians considered traitors brutally punished in the street. He remembered the cold: slipping on frozen piss and vomit on deck in the Arctic, boots glued to the legs with frost, looking forward to the daily tot of rum. The story he told most often and most proudly was from 1945. He was on the flotilla that brought the Norwegian Prince Olav back to Oslo after the end of the Nazi occupation. He spoke so vividly about entering the Oslo fjord, seeing the people rowing out in little boats lifting up their hands for bread. ‘They were starving.” He didn’t talk of war as glorious or meaningful or terrible or harrowing, but as all those things. In his memory it was all those impressions and feelings at once, and so much more he might have forgotten, or perhaps would never tell me.

We all tell stories, we all try to find
a clear and linear version of the truth

We all tell stories, we all try to find a clear and linear version of the truth: of ourselves, our lives, our pasts. When developing Narvik, Hannah and I read a lot of real accounts of WWII sailors and got stuck on the idea of people as defined by action. These navy boys would sail around for months on end, bored half out of their minds but always waiting, waiting for the moment when they’d be called upon to act, to be heroic. The pressure on them was terrific. Until that moment of attack or defence arrived they couldn’t know how they’d react, who they’d be. In the play the central character Jim says: “You are what you do… It’s all any of us are. It’s all we’ve got.” We’re all trying to navigate past behaviour and future intentions to work out what our story is, who we might be. Here and now we’re looking out at global events and inconceivable violent conflicts like those sailors looking out on endlessly shifting seas, trying to fathom a shape, to find something solid to hold on to.

Narvik isn’t my grandfather’s story – there’s a lot in there that’s pure fiction – but it’s inspired by the strange days he lived through, and perhaps writing the play was my way of saying goodbye to him, of trying to make sense of the disconnection of past and present. Faced with the disorientating movement of time we seek out love and connection. It’s what Jim does as he longs for his lover Else. It’s what I did when I sat down with my grandfather and asked him questions about his life. It’s what every person does when they come to the theatre. We come to see a play to be entertained, thrilled, amused, but more than that we come to understand, to relate to the characters on stage, the person sitting next to us. When a whole audience laughs or cries or breathes in at once it’s a little shining piece of connection – a moment of clarity and relief. Narvik’s a love story, a war story, a thriller. It’s got songs performed live by incredible musicians, wonderful versatile actors, an astonishing set. I hope it’s also a thread in the dark between my grandfather and all those other boys who went to war, and me, and any stranger who feels compelled to buy a ticket. That’s the intention. That’s the experiment. That’s why theatre’s great if it’s any good at all. Maybe see you in the dark?

Narvik is at Home, Manchester, 31 Jan-4 Feb. It’s then touring venues including in Liverpool, Harrogate, Bury, Keswick, York and Leeds, until 25 March

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