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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Olivier Theatre      Spring 2008

Tony Harrison's new verse play is shapeless and unfocussed, seemingly not sure what it's about or what its attitude is to whatever it's about.

Nominally its subject is Fridtjof Nansen, Norwegian Arctic explorer of a century ago (Fram - 'Forward' - was the name of his ship) who later became a diplomat specialising in humanitarian work such as famine relief and refugee services.

But Harrison doesn't tell Nansen's story directly, choosing rather to set it in an over-elaborate and rather twee frame.

He imagines the ghost of Greek scholar Gilbert Murray (who knew Nansen slightly) rising from his grave in Westminster Abbey, awakening the spirit of actress Sybil Thorndike, and crossing the river to the National Theatre with her to put on and appear in his play about Nansen.

The inherent clumsiness of the device aside, presenting Murray as a somewhat comic figure (he keeps getting sidetracked by his annoyance at being buried so close to T.S. Eliot, who criticised his Greek translations) sets a misleading tone to what follows.

It also introduces Tony Harrison's rhymed couplets (which continue through the entire play) as Gilbert Murray's inept doggerel.

Murray and Thorndike don't actually enter Nansen's story until about midway through, after a sequence about his Arctic expeditions.

This is actually the best part of the play, showing how Nansen (Jasper Britton) and his colleague Johansen (Mark Addy) were forced into an intimacy in order to survive, despite having nothing in common and not particularly liking each other.

Johansen killed himself twenty years later (though the play makes it seem sooner) and one of Tony Harrison's conceits is to have his ghost appear intermittently thereafter, ostensibly to berate the ardent Darwinian Nansen for being untrue to his beliefs by helping the weak in his humanitarian period.

But since the ghost never actually bothers Nansen, and since being true to Darwin was never really an issue, and since this would seem to make the play opposed to Nansen's relief work, just what the ghost is there for becomes one of the play's several confusions.

The longest scene in the play, climaxing the first act, is a meeting of Nansen, Murray, Thorndike and other relief workers to decide how best to raise world consciousness and sympathy for the 1922 famine in Russia.

As they debate the relative merits of shocking photographs, documentary film, or (Murray's position) inspired poetry, we have time to notice the buffet and chilled champagne waiting for them and to wonder whether the playwright admires them for their earnest efforts or considers them privileged dilettantes playing at Good Works.

Or maybe that debate was what the play was really about, since later we are shown the horrible photographs of the starving, and left to ponder on the playwright's assurance that even they cannot be as moving as the real thing. But if so, what was all the Arctic stuff there for?

By the time a mute Kurdish poet appears, or Nansen tells at length the story of some Africans who stowed away in the wheelbase of a jet plane and predictably froze to death, or Johansen's ghost goes off on a scatological riff that just sounds like the playwright showing off, or Gilbert Murray gets in a few more kicks at T. S. Eliot, your mind will have left the building even if your body hasn't done so along with the noticeable portion of the audience who didn't return after the interval.

Sian Thomas gets a show-stopping moment when Thorndike proves to the others at the dinner meeting that an actress can believably act the role of a famine victim, and the Olivier stage's two-level revolve gets its once-a-decade workout.

But the rest of the cast, as directed by the playwright and Bob Crowley, give the impression of just grimly soldiering on.

Gerald Berkowitz

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