facebook play-alt chevron-thin-right chevron-thin-left cancel location info chevron-thin-down star-full help-with-circle calendar images mail whatsapp directions_car directions_bike train directions_walk directions_bus close spinner11
Are you missing theatre as much as we are? Support us now with Theatre Tokens and see your favourite shows when they reopen. #IMissTheatre

Mark Addy and Jasper Britton in Fram at the National Theatre


First Published 18 April 2008, Last Updated 21 April 2008

The great actress Sybil Thorndike is resurrected from the dead, two explorers trek to the Arctic, a group of humanitarians consider the value of poetry and the ice-breaker ship Fram rises from the Olivier stage: theatre poet Tony Harrison has created an eclectic, epic new play which had its premiere at the National Theatre last night. Caroline Bishop had an unusual experience…

Written in rhyming couplets, Harrison’s play, which he also co-directs, is an amalgamation of ideas, philosophies, fact and fiction, all woven together by his bold verse and a strong visual style by designer Bob Crowley.

A play within a play, Fram is partly narrated by Oxford Professor of Greek and verse translator Gilbert Murray (Jeff Rawle), who opens the play by addressing the audience from Westminster Abbey, where he tells them of his desire to write a play about the Norwegian explorer and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen. Surrounded by the tombs and memorials of his contemporaries – including his rival and critic TS Eliot – Murray chooses the actress Dame Sybil Thorndike to disturb from her grave and help him create a play.

This bizarre, comic beginning leads into the story of Nansen, the privileged and educated scientist who, in 1893, made a bid for the North Pole along with his gruff, suicidal companion Johansen. Returning to Norway after a successful expedition, Nansen became a national hero and came to Britain on a lecture tour to show off his experiences. Later, his initial achievements trumped by subsequent explorers, Nansen turned to humanitarian work, using his fame to garner support for the starving during the Russian famine of the 1920s.

While this provides the central story, Harrison’s construct intends to make us think about the value of poetry, acting and the arts. His verse is simple, and at times perhaps intentionally obvious. Sometimes it produces a light-heartedness or comedy that sits incongruously with the subject matter – should starving children in Russia be described in a neat rhyming couplet? But in doing this Harrison makes us ask – as the characters do – if words can speak louder than pictures.

As Sybil Thorndike, Sian Thomas provides a decisive answer – Sybil’s portrayal of a starving woman who has turned to cannibalism is sickeningly real. Also in the cast, Jasper Britton gives us a proud, upright, egotistical Nansen, while Mark Addy is his reluctant sidekick Johansen, who, after committing suicide, returns from the grave to follow the explorer’s rise up the ladder of goodwill with a highly cynical eye – Nansen maintained his fame with ‘famine lunches’ and trips to the ballet while the Russians starved, implies Johansen.

Crowley’s bold set incorporates the stained glass window of Westminster Abbey, the stage of New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the frozen expanse of the Arctic, with Nansen’s ship Fram rising from the depths of the stage like an iceberg. In addition, video of the South Bank brings us back to the present day. It is an eclectic staging, apt for this highly unusual piece of theatre.



Sign up

Related articles

If you click through to seat selection (where you'll see either best available or a seating plan), you will be seeing the most up-to-date prices. If this differs from what we've written on the calendar, please bear with us, as those prices will update soon.

We now sell our famous TKTS Booth discounts online here at Official London Theatre.

We are now cancelling all performances up until and including 31 May 2020 to help us process existing bookings whilst we wait for further clarity from the government in terms of when we will be able to reopen.

We are so sorry that in these testing and difficult times you are not able to enjoy the show you have booked for and hope the following helps clarify next steps in respect of your tickets .

There is nothing that you need to do if your performance has been cancelled, but we do ask for your patience.

If you have booked directly with the theatre or show website for an affected performance, please be assured that they will contact you directly to arrange an exchange for a later date, a credit note/voucher or a refund. If you have booked via a ticket agent they will also be in contact with you directly.

We are processing in strict date order of performance, so you are likely to be contacted after the date you were due to go to the theatre. However, we want to reassure you that you will be contacted, and your order will be processed, but please do bear with us.

We’d like to thank everyone who has been patient and kind in dealing with their ticket providers so far and we are sorry that we cannot process your order as quickly as we would like.

Please do not contact your credit card company as that will slow the process down and put an additional burden on our box office and ticket agent teams.

In order for us to serve our audiences the best we can, please do not get in touch with your point of sale if you have booked for performances after 31 May. Please be reassured that if we have to cancel future performances you will be directly contacted by your theatre or ticket provider. Our producers continue to plan for all eventualities dependent on the individual needs of their shows and we will provide further updates on specific shows as and when they become available.

We look forward to welcoming you back into our theatres as soon as we are allowed to resume performances. In the meantime stay safe and healthy.

While theatres are currently closed, various venues and productions are making announcements for their individual shows, including cancellations and rescheduled performances. Please check with the individual shows for details.