Poet Tony Harrison’s new verse drama Fram received its world premiere last night (17 April 2008, previews from 10 April) at the National Theatre, where it runs in rep until 22 May as part of this year’s Travelex £10 Season in the NT Olivier (See News, 16 Jan 2008). The production is co-directed by the author and designer Bob Crowley.
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.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “Where to begin? Tony Harrison’s new play … is not so much a drama as a theatrical gallimaufry of an adventure story, global freezing, literary reputation, liberal do-gooding, the powerlessness of art and the vanity of human wishes. Written entirely in rhyming verse – the tone hovers between trite pantomime couplet and a joltingly overcrowded metrical system… How this hangs together is not entirely clear, but Harrison has obviously decided not to worry about dramatic neatness any more than his co-director and designer Bob Crowley is concerned about loose ends or visual conformity. A magnificent white crystalline hulk of the Fram (ship) rises on the Olivier’s revolve at the end, bearing Nansen and his drunken, suicidal sidekick Hjalmar Johansen (Mark Addy) to fame and apotheosis ... Not least of the evening’s sarcastic pleasures is the filming of the South Bank and the progress from Westminster Abbey to the Olivier and into the stalls... Only Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw, doing Brecht, have previously undermined their privileged status as NT employees, and it is a refreshing departure from our cosiness in the approved cultural climate to have Harrison – the greatest National Theatre poet we have had – growling miserably and contentiously in our ears once again at the sprightly old age of 70.”
Simon Edge in the Daily Express (two stars) – “The new verse-drama by poet Tony Harrison … begins in dazzlingly inventive style. The ghosts of actress Sybil Thorndike and Greek translator Gilbert Murray rise from their graves in Westminster Abbey to discuss the play they are about to make … While Jeff Rawle and, especially, Sian Thomas are a joy to watch as Murray and Thorndike, Jasper Britton and Mark Addy struggle to get anything out of their uninspiring interplay as Nansen and his suicidal companion Hjalmar Johansen. Then comes a stunning ballet interlude, whose charm is undermined only by the mystery of what the hell it is doing there … The second half is even worse. Harrison squanders all the trust he built up in his brilliant opening with a self-indulgent, unedited ramble where he uses the figure of Nansen – alive and dead – to hector us on his own hobby-horses, from global famine to mass migration, via freedom of expression for Kurdish poets. It’s an embarrassing, ill-disciplined hodge-podge which gives political engagement a bad name.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Tony Harrison doesn't shirk the big issues. His new epic verse play deals with environmental disaster, the precariousness of human survival, the failure of idealism, and the saving power of imagination. It hardly makes for a coherent whole, but it has exciting moments and a wild madcap inventiveness… The question asked is whether attitudes can best be changed by charitable enterprise, international institutions, or art and language. It is an interesting dialectic. Easily the best moment comes when Sian Thomas' Thorndike delivers a speech about starvation that brings home the reality of the Volga famine. It is a tour de force by Thomas and shows Harrison's language at its best… One can't expect Harrison to resolve the art versus life debate, but a coda rather confusingly implies that, with greater empathy and more contact between opposed value-systems, mankind stands a chance… He has bitten off more than any single play can chew and, dramatically, there are dead patches. But I can forgive any play that aims high.”
Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (one star) – “When the time comes to summarise this theatrical year, the hollow accolade for most peculiar evening will surely go to poet Tony Harrison’s escalatingly bizarre rhyming verse drama. Nominally taking as its subject the long-forgotten Norwegian Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen, it soon resembles nothing so much as a punishingly pretentious theatre studies project mounted by a student who has overdosed on Brecht… The problem with Harrison’s writing — and it’s a hefty problem, given a running time of nearly three hours — is that virtually nothing happens. Instead we have lots of people describing things they have done or are about to do. Plus a long solo from a ballerina, a Kurdish poet with his eyes sewn up and some African stowaways… It doesn’t help that the piece is directed by Harrison and designer Bob Crowley, meaning there is no one left to suggest slashing superfluous words and sets, or to ask the simple but lethal question: what the hell is this meant to be?... An Arctic winter would seem delightful by comparison.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “It’s a question that those running or visiting the National, where much of Tony Harrison’s Fram is actually set, must often ask themselves. It’s a question that Harrison, who famously translated the Oresteia for the theatre, asks directly in the awkward, troubling, sometimes stomach-turning verse play he and Bob Crowley have co-directed: what’s the use of Aeschylus in Darfur or, indeed, of any art in a world of war and famine?... That the verse is seldom up to Harrison’s best rhyming standards may not matter, since the pretence is that it’s by the duller Gilbert Murray. But there’s too much that’s pointlessly jokey — why dwell on Murray’s resentment of TS Eliot? — and more that’s irrelevant… But then Thomas’ fine Thorndike transforms herself into a starving Volgan and delivers a speech in which she vividly, gruesomely, evokes cannibalism, making her hearers, like last night’s audience, feel its horrors. So, who knows, maybe there’s purpose in poetry and the theatre after all.”
- by Theo Bosanquet