Caro Meets Music Interview Theatre Interview

Clare Norburn: Love In The Lockdown

By | Published on Friday 5 March 2021

When I heard about new streaming production ‘Love In The Lockdown’ – a nine part play about a couple negotiating the early stages of a relationship as well as working together on a creative project, all during lockdown – I was immediately interested, and we put it on the to-recommend list.

And when the opportunity arose to talk to the creative mind behind it, I jumped at the chance. Said creative mind is Clare Norburn, playwright, soprano and Artistic Director of medieval music ensemble The Telling.

I put some questions to Clare about what inspired the production, how the play came together, and her plans for the future.

CM: Can you start by giving us an idea of the narrative of ‘Love In The Lockdown’? Where does the story take us…?
CN: ‘Love In The Lockdown’ is an online play with music in nine short episodes. It is being released in real time on the first anniversary of key points in the build-up to, and during, Lockdown 1.0 from 4 Mar to 23 May.

The main characters are playwright Giovanni – Alec Newman – and medieval musician, Emilia – Rachael Stirling – who meet at a dinner party at the end of February 2020. Five days on, in Episode One, we see them feeling their way towards a first date.

Subsequent episodes see the development of their relationship, alongside their creative collaboration, inspired by the book ‘The Decameron’ by Boccaccio. Set in Florence in 1348, ‘The Decameron’ opens with Boccaccio’s experience of the Black Death and goes on as a kind of ’14th Century box-set’ of 100 stories told by ten young people to while away their time in quarantine.

Giovanni reimagines ‘The Decameron’ as a show for 2020, drawing out parallels with the COVID-19 pandemic, while Emilia and her ensemble – played by real life medieval music group The Telling – plan the music.

CM: What themes do you explore through the play?
CN: The play is about the loss of direct personal and physical contact, which we all experienced in lockdown, but which is heightened when experienced by two lovers in the early stages of a relationship.

Both characters are also on a journey about who they are artistically. In fact, I realised after I had written it, that ‘Love In The Lockdown’ is a kind of “‘La La Land’ in a pandemic”.

The characters in ‘La La Land’ challenge each other not to “sell out” to corporate demands but instead to follow their creative dreams. Likewise, Giovanni and Emilia come to recognise their “artistic core” through what happens to them during the play. It’s also about the relationship between creativity and commercialism.

The play also explores the challenges of the arts and the personal lives of artists in the face of the pandemic. Emilia falls through the cracks of government support and has to take a job in her local supermarket stacking shelves. She comes home wanting to work on the project but drained. Like so many artists in the face of lockdown, she loses a sense of her own creativity.

All my writing to date has taken the central premise that magic happens when music and drama collide. The sad fact with ‘Love In The Lockdown’ is that online that alchemy cannot happen in the same way and there can’t be the same kind of interaction.

Emilia has a speech about this. It was the speech I found hardest to write, and in the read through I realised it was inarticulate – and we talked about how that was kind of right.

That part of the challenge for the arts has been that we don’t have a language or a way to articulate why live performance matters so much.

CM: Can you tell us a bit more about the musical elements involved?
CN: As well as the play scenes filmed over Zoom, each episode contains at least one film of music from the mid 14th Century, the time of the Black Death, by the leading French composer of the period, Guillaume de Machaut, and a number of composers working in Italy, who are not really household names today: including Johannes Ciconia, Francesco Landini, Gherardello da Firenze and anon.

It’s a mix of courtly dance music – some of which sounds closer to world music than classical – and love songs. I’ve been a singer since I can remember and only started writing ten years ago. I started writing because I wanted to find a way into medieval music for a wider audience. So I have always written what I call ‘concert/plays’ where music and drama share the billing.

CM: Is the piece based on your own experiences in any way?
CN: Yes, I was in the early stages of a relationship when lockdown started. So I didn’t see my boyfriend for nearly eight weeks – until the point when after 13 May you were allowed to go for a walk with someone from another household. So, for eight weeks, we had candlelit dinners over Zoom – just like the characters in my play. No one felt able to talk about the experiences of partners who couldn’t be together. It was a strange time and it felt like we would never be able to touch each other again.

CM: Other than your personal experiences of lockdown, did you have other inspirations?
CN: Yes, besides my personal experience of being unable to see my boyfriend, I also was fascinated by the parallels of pandemics through history. I re-read ‘The Decameron’ and I was so struck by the contemporary echoes in Boccaccio’s prelude.

It’s all there: the COVID-deniers, the imbalance between how rich and poor are treated, the need to blame someone for the source of the virus. But most of all, it amazed me that, even though in 2020 we had the might of medical science at our disposal, the sense of powerlessness was just the same as 1348.

CM: What made you decide to do it as a series rather than a one-off production?
CN: The idea of serialising and releasing the show in real time came later. But there’s something about a first anniversary that has a particular intensity. You are still close enough to ‘smell’ the direct experience and yet you also have enough distance to see the landscape around it.

Plus there is something about the cycle of the seasons: the smell of cherry blossom takes you directly back to that moment a year ago when…

I’ve also written short news headlines at the top of many of the episodes to place it in people’s own ‘lockdown story’ – and we are lucky enough to have comedian, impressionist and actor Jon Culshaw recreating the voice of Boris Johnson in an extract from the lockdown speech made on 23 Mar.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast and other creatives involved?
CN: We’re thrilled to have Alec Newman and Rachael Stirling in the lead roles with Leila Mimmack as the role of Venetia, the TV Commissioning Editor, and Jon Culshaw as the voice of Boris Johnson.

Medieval ensemble The Telling is providing the music. The BAFTA-nominated Nicholas Renton is the director and Stephanie Williams is our film editor. It is really down to Nick and Stephanie’s expertise that we can bring together the project which is technically challenging.

The show is directed and filmed entirely over Zoom and by actors and musicians on their phones and recording devices.

CM: Could you see this piece being performed in live venues, or is it too specific to the online format?
CN: It‘s very much written for online and couldn’t be performed as it is as a live show. But I have, jokingly, talked about a sequel or a related live show. I have an idea where, like ‘Kiss Me Kate’, a live audience might see the eventual show Giovanni and Emilia had been working on – but interspersed with it are scenes backstage in which the next phase of the relationship between Giovanni and Emilia is worked out.

CM: What challenges are there in creating this kind of work for the digital space?
CN: Many! Online favours drama over music. Our actors can inter-relate over Zoom, but music doesn’t really work on Zoom like platforms because one voice always has to be primary – that’s the exact opposite of what you want when making music together.

Then there are the technical challenges. We tried to plan for as many as possible and The Telling team has lots of experience of working online, having released a series of online films – albeit filmed more traditionally in the summer window when such things were possible.

Also we do weekly online singing workshops on Zoom and our musicians are used to filming from their own homes. We were really lucky to have the expertise of our production assistant who really knew how to exploit the technology.

Even so, we have had internet shortages and drilling to contend with and it isn’t all in the can yet, so there probably will be more challenges to come….

CM: Lots of people and companies have been producing work to be delivered online over the last year – do you think this might continue even after the pandemic?
CN: Yes, certainly in the short-term, at least until there is a sense of real confidence that people are able to return in the same numbers to live performances. It seems the most enterprising companies are exploring how to join up blended live and online projects.

Just like my idea that I might develop a related live show sequel, which might give a different forum for showing the online film alongside a live show. There are, I am sure, lots of similar ways of joining up online and live experiences that companies are going to be exploring.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about you now? What’s your history in the arts? Did you always want to be in performance?
CN: I announced at the age of four that I wanted to sing. I used to write too as a child and was forever organising dramas – mostly improvised – in the back garden.

I grew up in Hove in a street where there were actors and creatives. In my teens, I was in a theatre group run by a wonderful actress and director, Sylvia Vickers, and she treated us just like professionals – we talked about the characters’ backstories and I got to learn some great plays “from the inside”.

Then I went and studied music – at Leeds University – and became a singer, specialising in early and particularly medieval music. I forgot all about drama and writing really – so those early experiences were my bedrock.

Since I started writing in 2010, I’ve kind of made up my own “study course” going to the theatre, watching and re-watching writers who inspire me – the great TV playwright Dennis Potter and Abi Morgan, who wrote ‘The Hour’, ‘River’ and ‘The Split’, among other things. I love bringing together the two worlds of music and drama.

CM: The pandemic has affected everyone in the cultural industries, obviously, but how have you felt its impact? How have you coped?
CN: I separated a year before lockdown and I don’t have a financial settlement yet, so I currently have no savings and am renting.

I’m lucky though. Emilia has to resort to stacking shelves, but I have always done freelance fundraising for small arts organisations – a different kind of writing, but rewarding too. So when the pandemic hit, I had to write six Arts Council Emergency Response Fund bids – luckily all were successful.

My pandemic challenge is balancing things: finding enough hours for the creative stuff whilst earning enough to pay the rent.

CM: What are your hopes for the post pandemic future? Do you have any plans, or new projects in the pipeline?
CN: I have lots of hope for the future and can’t wait to tour again. Despite the sadness and challenge of the pandemic, it’s also been a chance to take stock and realise what really matters – and to recognise how important live performance is to me.

I am fundraising for my next project with The Telling: ‘I, Spie’. All through history, musicians have had the potential to be spies; working at court and so able easily to overhear discussions and to travel without suspicion. It will transport the listener into the world of Elizabethan espionage, with a few surprising twists along the way.

If the fundraising – and the vaccine roll out – goes well, then I aim to write ‘I, Spie’ later this spring and, if possible, to rehearse it and do a mini socially distanced tour in late August and early September.

Two episodes of ‘Love In The Lockdown’ are already available, and the remaining seven episodes will be released at intervals until 31 May. For more information and release dates see this page here.

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Photo: Robert Piwko

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