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.