Award-winning playwright LIZZIE NUNNERY has had a busy year so far, with a national tour for Narvik (her “play with music” set during World War II), an appearance on a BBC Radio 4 Front Row programme dedicated to The Mersey Sound, being involved with Tonight At Noon, marking 50 years since publication of The Mersey Sound, and developing a new play with music for performance at The Unity Theatre (13th-15th July). In between, she has found time to re-work her 2014 radio play, The Sum, for a two-week run at The Everyman this May (6th-20th), and speak to Debra Williams about the new play, her creative process, and her thoughts about the crazy world in which we seem to have found ourselves.
Hi Lizzie. In 2015, you spoke to Bido Lito! about liking the “challenge of writing unusual Liverpool stories”, both ones that happen in people’s living rooms and ones that don’t. The Sum sounds like it’s going to be a combination of people’s day-to-day lives and the larger concerns that intrude into them. Can you tell us a bit more about the play’s themes?
Yeah, The Sum is a Liverpool story, but I hope it’s also a universal one. The idea was first sparked when I read an article about the rising number of women in Britain selling their hair to companies who make hair extensions. I found myself asking, ‘Who is this woman who’s selling her hair? What are the pressures pushing her to do that? And if she’ll sell that, what else will she sell- would she sell her heart?’ I began to feel a shift in the national conversation away from a discussion of our personal worth and quality of life, and towards a mercenary assessment of what each of us put in to or take out of society. I felt that politicians were selling us a disingenuous and damaging version of ourselves and the economy- reducing everything to a simple in-out spreadsheet, using that as an excuse for the cruelties of austerity. I suspected they were selling us bad maths, and the more I’ve researched that, the more it’s been confirmed. So I arrived at the central character Eve, who is great at maths, who knows how to hold the sums together, but who starts to feel the numbers slipping away from her when her hours are cut and her partner loses his job. In the face of that she has to fight hard to remember her own worth, to keep her family together.
The synopsis suggests a gritty realism not unlike that found in Alan Bleasdale’s Boys From The Blackstuff, and 2017 – in some respects – feels a lot like the early 80s, both politically and socially. Do you think you have ‘a duty’ as a playwright to write about current events, to hold power to account? And what were your influences – literary or otherwise – when writing The Sum?
I’m not sure I’d say playwrights have a duty to be political but they do have a duty to be current. Theatre is all about now. It has to resonate immediately with the people sitting in front of it or it fails on the spot. I’ve written a fair few history plays but I was always asking, ‘Why now? What’s it saying about now?’ I suppose I feel driven to create a different sort of conversation than the noise of the media- to frame familiar ideas or events in new ways. There are lots of sad echoes between Britain in the 80s and Britain now, and the research for The Sum only proved that to me more and more, which of course kept driving me to write it. It’s the product of my frustration and disbelief really. I’d be over the moon if people drew comparisons to Bleasdale, and he was definitely in my head when I was writing some sections, but actually The Sum is more magic realism than gritty. The songs allow us to go to deep and strange places with the characters, to move inside their imagination and to celebrate the warmth and the humour that is part of surviving hard times. I knew fairly quickly that I wanted it to be a big, bold show with laughs alongside the heartbreak. I was thinking about great working class plays like A Taste of Honey and Educating Rita when I was writing, but I was also thinking about Bruce Springsteen and Dylan and Sam Cooke. I wanted to sing and shout this story out to the audience, to look them right in the eye.
I see Eve as ‘Everywoman’, controlling her life as best she can but actually hostage to uncontrollable external forces. This seems to reflect the current situation for a lot of people; individuals seem to have become relatively powerless creatures against the corporate groups taking over the planet. How can we as individuals resist this trend or at least have our voices heard?
I suppose writing is one way- writing songs, books, plays, protest banners… There’s a message in the play that happiness lies in community rather than ownership. Eve spends so long focusing on the money, the lack of it, that she begins to believe money is the cure, but what she truly needs is to belong, to know she has people to hold her up when she falls. If I’m optimistic at all it’s because of that: no matter how far globalization goes, how big corporations get there will always be smaller communities organizing on their own terms, working out how to hold each other up, because we need that to survive: we can’t function happily without it.
Bleasdale’s work was extraordinarily shocking and profoundly moving, and a coruscating attack on – and reflection of life for many in – Thatcher’s Britain. What effect would you like The Sum to have on its audience?
It’s a story written out of anger about austerity and I hope through the shows that anger is transformed in to a positive force. We’re living in very confusing political times when the old ideas of left and right don’t seem to totally fit anymore and so much of the media output is noisy, contradictory and disorientating. The Brexit campaign was painful and damaging partly because so many lies were told, so much trust was broken down. In the face of all that it’s getting harder for people to tell stories about themselves or their communities, to describe the reasons why things aren’t working, why for so many people things are getting worse. Hopefully in the dark of the theatre we can cut out some of that noise and distraction, and reflect on the damage that Conservative ideology is doing. Through the story of one family the play touches on the bedroom tax, zero-hour contracts, the excessive power of private landlords, cuts to care for the elderly… In that way I hope the play connects with the dissatisfaction so many people are feeling, but I also hope it energises people for change. It’s about a woman finding herself within her community, working out her true value and worth that has nothing to do with money. If the play has one message it’s that: we’re all so much more than the sum of our parts.
The music in your plays is not ‘background music’, nor are the works ‘musicals’. Instead, the musicians – especially in Narvik – seem to act as a Greek chorus, perhaps providing an authorial voice or an insight into the characters’ inner thoughts of the sort that could be found in a written story. Is this the case, or is there another reason why music and songs are so integral to your work?
I think that was the case for Narvik but the music functions a bit differently in The Sum, with characters singing directly to each other and to the audience. In this play the relationship between dialogue and music is about banging naturalism and escapism together, exposing the beautiful in the mundane. We’ve got a great cast of singers and the director, Gemma Bodinetz, has done wonderfully bold, sparkling things with the musical moments. I can’t wait to see and hear it all come together. As long as I’ve been writing plays I’ve been wondering about the different ways music can work on stage. It’s such a powerful tool to shift atmosphere, accelerate story, expose truths about characters… And I think I’ve always wondered whether I could take everything I love about a good gig and combine it with everything I love about a good play.
And what’s the writing process? Does one thing – the play’s theme, dialogue or setting, or the music or the lyrics – come first?
Roughly speaking characters come first, then story, then what they say and sing comes as one flowing journey which is then endlessly rearranged until it feels right. But The Sum is a bit unusual in that there are a few really old songs in there that I was playing at gigs before the play was even thought of. When I started imagining what the characters might sing I realized I had some of those songs written already. But I suppose it’s not that surprising: it all came out of the soup of my brain.
Of course, you collaborate with Vidar Norheim and Martin Heslop on many of your projects. What is the importance for you of working with people you know well?
It’s so valuable. Irreplaceable. You arrive at a short hand and an honesty that saves so much time, and reference points are so easy because you can draw on the great bank of past listening and playing you’ve done together. I feel lucky beyond words to get to work with both Vidar and Martin. Over the past five years or so we’ve done endless projects together, from straight band gigs to theatre shows to site-specific happenings. Narvik would have been impossible without the collaboration between the three of us. Apart from skill as composers and players, they’ve both got amazing taste. They’d never let me get away with anything dodgy and I love that. And Martin’s a brilliant poet and lyricist himself so he’s a great person to consult about lyrics. Yeah, they’re alright.
I’d also like to ask you about Horny Handed Tons Of Soil, which is another piece anchored firmly in Liverpool and its history, being a response to Adrian Henri’s own response to the city’s urban geography. Memory and history are themes that seem crucial to your work. Can you explain a little more about that, and tell us how/if creating a piece in response to someone else’s work is different to creating an original work?
Memory is a big theme for me yeah. I think like most people I’m trying to deal with transience- the strange disappearance of past places and people. I love Adrian Henri’s warm, funny, devastating treatment of those ideas. As most people probably know by now, 2017 is the fiftieth anniversary of The Mersey Sound, the best-selling poetry anthology written by Henri, McGough and Patten. With that in mind, Matthew Linley at Unity Theatre asked Martin, Vidar and me to create a piece of live music and poetry inspired by Adrian Henri and his love affair with Liverpool 8. We brought the amazing trumpeter Martin Smith on board to help us develop a 20 minute version which we performed at last year’s Phrased & Confused event at Liverpool Acoustic Festival. It got a great response so Unity commissioned us to make it in to an hour-long show. The more we looked at Henri’s paintings and the anarchic ‘happenings’ he led on Hope St in the 60s, the more it seemed clear we needed a collision of sound and visuals, so we brought on board documentary film maker Tim Brunsden and designer Laura Lomax to complete the Horny Handed Tons of Soil team. Right now we’re hard at work making the show! The title comes from a fragment poem by Henri and the piece pictures L8 as a living thing that just keeps fighting back from the soil and the roots. It looks at the myth, magic and the reality of that patch of city over the past fifty years as the area’s been altered by destruction, construction, rebellion and grass roots creativity. It’s about capturing the spirit of Adrian Henri but also making something original. Beyond the title there will be very little of Henri’s own poetry used and his partner Catherine Marcangeli has been supportive of that. She doesn’t want us to make anything hackneyed or nostalgic. It’s a wonderful thing to take Henri’s great bank of work as a point of inspiration. When it’s going well it feels like we’re having a really good conversation.
I hesitate to ask what you’re up to next because I don’t think we’ll have space to include it all! However… can you give us an idea of what’s next on your creative agenda?
Horny Handed Tons of Soil is in the Unity 13th-15th July then touring nationally across the Autumn. After that I might have a long lie down. But I’m already talking to Hannah Tyrrell Pinder who directed Narvik about a new show we want to make together. It’s going to be an all-female cast. And it’ll probably have songs.
The Sum runs from Saturday 6th May – Saturday 20th May at the Everyman Theatre. Tickets are available here.