Written entirely in rhyming verse – the tone hovers between trite pantomime couplet and a joltingly overcrowded metrical system – the show starts in Westminster Abbey, where the ghosts of the classicist Gilbert Murray (Jeff Rawle) and the actress Sybil Thorndike (Sian Thomas) summon the story of the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen (Jasper Britton), who sailed to the North Pole in his specially built boat, the Fram, and later worked for the League of Nations as a figurehead for famine relief in Russia in the 1920s.
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 rises on the Olivier’s revolve at the end, bearing Nansen and his drunken, suicidal sidekick Hjalmar Johansen (Mark Addy) to fame and apotheosis.
But on their boat are two starving African stowaways, covered in flies. This is just one of many extraordinary stories that Harrison incorporates to show that there is no compartmentalisation in the tragedy of human life. In the show’s centre set-piece, Sian Thomas delivers a brilliant speech of starvation at a banquet, striking a vicious sardonic tone not heard in our theatre since Wallace Shawn’s The Fever. At the end, in Westminster Abbey, a Kurdish poet (Aykut Hilmi) has sewn together his lips and eyes in protest.
Meanwhile, Murray rails comically and pathetically against T S Eliot, Nicholas de Jongh and a National Theatre policy that passes over his own version of The Oresteia in favour of some Yorkshire roughneck such as Harrison. That famous 1980 production – high point of the Peter Hall regime -- is evoked in Murray’s adoption of a mask to express the inexpressible as also represented in Munch’s painting of “The Scream.”
You give up worrying about these connections during a ballet danced by Viviana Durante representing the Aurora Borealis to entertain a smug group of American Relief administrators. “The Scream” was painted in the same year as the Fram set sail; Isadora Duncan once danced starvation (“a corpse de ballet?”); poets run out of words, and topics, to convey disgust; Olivier would turn in his grave in the Abbey...
Not least of the evening’s sarcastic pleasures is the filming of the South Bank and the progress from Abbey to the Olivier and into the stalls by Rawle and Thomas. 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 seventy.
- Michael Coveney