Written entirely in rhyming verse, the action starts in Westminster Abbey, where the late Greek scholar and poet Gilbert Murray and actress Sybil Thorndike climb out of their crypts to perform a new play at the National Theatre about Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen and his Arctic ship Fram. Abandoning the ship in the ice, Nansen sets off, together with his suicidal companion Johansen, to make a bid for the North Pole on foot. Years later, and haunted by Johansen’s ghost, Nansen is appointed to the League of Nations, where as a figurehead of Russian famine relief in 1922 he searches for ways to make people care.
Jasper Britton plays Nansen in a cast that also features Mark Addy as Hjalmar Johansen, Sian Thomas as Sybil Thorndike and Jeff Rawle as Greek scholar Gilbert Murray. Harrison, who scored hits at the National in the 1980s with versions of The Oresteia and The Mysteries, is often heralded as one of the most important British poets of the last 50 years.
However, at last night’s press performance, Fram failed to live up to the lofty praise of his previous National productions. With critics throwing around phrases such as “self-indulgent”, “ill-disciplined” and “escalatingly bizarre”, the general consensus appears to be that this production, much like the ship of its title, has run aground. A set-piece in which Sian Thomas’ Sybil Thorndike acts out the plight of a starving Russian woman is noted as the evening’s highlight in several reviews.
- by Theo Bosanquet