Liverpool is a looking glass for its greatest artists. This city alters the thought-dreams of our favourite thinkers and places a particular prism to the colour of the wine that pours from Scouse communicators. It doesn’t matter if they write, sing, perform… whatever. Lizzie Nunnery, the subject of the latest #LiverpoolLessOrdinary, does all three, but the shadow of the city always casts itself upon her stirring work. By Alan O’Hare.
‘I rhyme, To see myself, To set the darkness echoing.’ Seamus Heaney said that. Well, he might have… but he certainly wrote it. The message is what matters, though, not the medium – and therein lies the rub. The tail has wagged the dog in art for so long now that those of us who stay awake at night wondering about such things often end up searching for what came before the chicken and the egg.
For an artist to revisit the journey of becoming a writer, they must do it, of course, through writing. Liverpool writer Lizzie Nunnery, the award-winning playwright and alt-folk star, has done just that. Those who try to cage her and place her work behind a glass case have been coming unstuck for years. Is she a singer? A songwriter? A playwright? Who cares… all that matters is that Nunnery’s best work has communicated with people in this city and beyond for well over a decade now. “You have to at least kid yourself that people are going to engage with your work or you wouldn’t get through it,” reveals Lizzie. “Sometimes playwrights get told they have to ‘know their audience’ to write well… which has perplexed me a bit in the past. But, I think that’s what it means: that you can’t be writing it just for yourself.”
Nunnery hasn’t written just for herself in a long time. It was back in 2006 that ‘Unprotected’, the play she co-wrote with Esther Wilson, John Fay and Tony Green, won Amnesty International’s Freedom of Expression Award. Immediately after came the success of ‘Intemperance’ – her first full-length play, commissioned by the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, and set amongst the poor of Liverpool in 1854. “It freaks me out that they were both a decade or so ago,” she says. “Those two projects changed my life – it’s incredible that I was given a chance to work on them when I was so young and that they were both so well received. I was just this nervous girl who wanted to write stories.” Since then, there has been more theatre success and radio recognition, alongside numerous record releases, as the Scouser has continued to avoid pigeon holes: “It was through working on those projects, with such brilliant people, that I got politicised and I grew up,” she says. “I was lucky.”
Luck has a lot to do with the career path of an artist. But a dogged determination to follow talent down the alleys and avenues of its particular quirks and strengths is vital, too. It doesn’t matter if Lizzie Nunnery is writing plays, singing songs, working for radio or plucking magical melodies out of the air, her work comes from the same sky – she just might be standing on a different cloud for each one.
I take it you always wanted to write?
It sounds pretentious, but I can’t remember not wanting to be a writer… I had notebooks full of lyrics at twelve. I even tried to write a novel about a girl in the Iron Age when I was thirteen! I don’t say that with total pride… I was such a weirdo and a total daydreamer! At seventeen I went to an ‘Acoustic Engine’ night, run by Steve Roberts and Dan Dean, and managed to get through a couple of songs. Their encouragement of me from that point was like gold – they let me think of myself as a songwriter and singer. Then, as a student, I entered a university playwriting competition: the first time I’d thought about trying to write a play… one of the judges was Suzanne Bell, who ran the literary department at the Everyman, and she invited me to join their Young Writers Group and it felt like home. Those were key moments. So much of being an artist is having the confidence to call yourself one.
What do your words have to do to suggest a song, a play or whatever they are destined for?
The best kind of writing I do accidentally when I’m wandering around or in the shower or doing the dishes… a bit of a melody and a lyric popping into my head, an image on-stage or a line of dialogue. Lots of it is rubbish and gets forgotten – but then other things stick. Then the hard work is sitting with a laptop or an instrument and crafting those scattered things into a structure someone else can relate to… and working out how to make something that might connect. Plays and songs obviously operate very differently and, by the time I’m sitting writing, I’ve probably already got an idea and an instinct for one or the other. Sometimes I discover I’m wrong! But that’s all part of it, too.
‘England Loves A Poor Boy’. ‘Intemperance’. ‘Poverty Knocks’… where does that ache come from?
It’s hard to say. Maybe there’s an element of guilt… I walk around where I live, in Liverpool 8, and see lots of people who are doing great – but also lots of people going through the ordinary mundane grind of no money in their pockets. Thatcher’s rhetoric of individualism was so seductive and we’re still suffering from that… we’re still in danger of always blaming ourselves if we can’t hold things together financially and of blaming others if the same happens to them. We’ve got to react and I suppose the plays and songs are my reaction.
We are not Thatcher’s children: I want to keep repeating that so it might be true.
Let’s talk about your latest work, ‘The Sum’, coming to the Everyman in 2017. What can you tell us?
It started with an article I read about women in Britain selling their hair – how the market for real hair extensions has traditionally been supplied by India and China, but increasingly women here are selling their hair to a shop or a website to make £50 or £70. I got stuck on the image of a woman cutting off her hair on-stage and what that represented… that question of what we’re all worth. I wanted to know who she was, why she’d do it and, if she’d do that, what else of herself would she sell? I found my main character, Eve, that way.
Are we all for sale?
That’s the question at the centre of the play: when it comes to the crunch, what would you sell? If you and your child are going to end up on the streets, would you sell your heart? It’s tricky getting new plays off the ground, and I had an opportunity to pitch ideas for BBC Radio, so I thought maybe this was a way to buy some time to work on this thing. It turned out really well on radio and I was so proud of the version we did – but I could still see the show on-stage and didn’t want to let that go.
What can we expect to see on Hope Street next May, then?
The theme of the austerity lie, and what it does to people, tied in with lots of songs. I started writing more songs around the story and the music lets magic and sparkle enter in… they make the play a celebration of the characters and their world, despite the hardships they’re battling.
It’s set in Liverpool… is that vital for you to find familiar colours?
It feels important to tell not just Liverpool stories, but stories that happen to be set in Liverpool. The story of a woman fighting to hold her family and her relationship together in austerity Britain could be transplanted to Glasgow, Newcastle, Cardiff or loads of cities – but this is where I live and where I know best. The more different stories we tell about Liverpool, the more we move away from cliché and the more we place it as a complex, thriving and fascinating place not bogged down by stereotype. I’ve written characters from Zimbabwe, Ireland and Norway – but a Liverpool voice is one I can immediately hear. I know, and love, the music of it.
If the city was an already-created character (any novel, film, song etc.), what would she/he be?
I think we’re shape-shifting and we’ve got many faces. But, if you’re going to force me, ‘Peggy Olsen’, from ‘Mad Men’: we’ll keep surprising you and you can’t keep us down. Plus, Peggy had a happy ending, of course…
She did! Perhaps your type of character, too… does TV or film feature in your future do you think?
I’ve been developing ideas with a great company called Little Brother Productions, but I can’t tell you much more right now. I’ve done work on short films in the past, and would love to build on that to make original ideas for television, so keep your fingers crossed for me!
Of course. What about the music?
We’re releasing an EP of music from ‘Narvik’ – the play I wrote about stories told to me by my ‘Grandy’ who was in the Navy during WWII in Norway and the Arctic – to coincide with a UK tour early next year. We’ll be playing some gigs next year to support it, too, with one in Manchester’s HOME on February 2nd and one at Bluecoat here in early March. There’ll be others across the year and I can’t wait to be performing the new material… nothing really replaces that feeling of connection when you stand up and sing.
For those of us who’ve followed your work, ‘Narvik’ was a brilliant anomaly…
We wanted to make a show with music threaded through, a live soundtrack that could draw the audience in to the mind and memories of ‘Jim’ – this boy from Everton who falls in love with a Norwegian girl before the war, experiences feeling like a hero at the battle of Narvik soon after, but then spends the rest of the war trying to get back to that point of love and clarity.
That feeling of marginalisation?
I got fascinated by the idea of this generation of boys who got on ships, sailed away and saw everything they thought they knew blown apart. I did a lot of research and kept coming back to two ideas: how fragmented and morally disorientating it was to live through war in that way and how much pressure there was to be heroic when called upon… how crushing that pressure must have been. These fellas’ would sail around for months on end just waiting – until they had to act in an instant, and when that instant came, what if they couldn’t?
You even performed in it during its 2015 run at the Playhouse. Fun?
To sing in the show was amazing. I’ve got a little boy now and unfortunately he’s not big enough to take on the road yet, so I won’t be able to perform on the UK tour next year – but we’ve been auditioning and have got a really exciting replacement. Watch this space!
Great! Vidar Norheim worked on the music with you there and he’s back for ‘The Sum’…
I was beyond lucky to stumble on Vidar (literally, at a party) over a decade ago. He has an incredible range of skills as a musician/producer/composer and a far more technical approach to songwriting and arranging than me. I’m all instinct and feeling when it comes to music… he responds to that, but he’s also taught me a lot of discipline as a writer and it was brilliant when we started to work as a folk duo. I didn’t have to do gigs on my own any more!
What can you tell us about Everyman artistic director, Gemma Bodinetz?
Gemma doesn’t need me to sing her praises! The great things she’s done for theatre in this city are apparent for all to see…
She’s back directing one of your plays for the first time in a while…
It’s the first time we’ve worked together, as writer and director, since ‘Intemperance’ – but she brings a lot of passion to the rehearsal room and that’s infectious. She knows how to get to the heart of a script and how to take the actors and everyone else with her… and she has a great eye for detail, painting gorgeous pictures onstage and always searching for that bit of beauty and humour glinting through a situation.
I’ve been writing about your work for ten years. What drives it?
Outsiders are great to write about. There’s something compelling about putting the focus on someone usually marginalised and letting them run the story… those voices who aren’t usually heard. I feel like that’s my job.
May 6th-20th 2017
Everyman Theatre, Hope Street, Liverpool
Pic by Mark McNulty