This review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 2 May 2008
Tony Harrison, Fram, Olivier Theatre
“Everything is real and everything is true”, as the fictional author of Fram declares at the outset of Tony Harrison’s ambitious excursion into the politics of representation. Harrison’s “author”, the long-dead classicist Gilbert Murray (played with shuffling panache by a well cast Jeff Rawle), has risen from his tomb in Westminster Abbey in order to rehearse a play that he has been writing for the past fifty years. Murray, known for his cumbersome verse translations of Aeschylus and Euripides, has hit upon the unlikely subject of the polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, whose three masted schooner Fram (Norwegian for “forward”) remains the strongest wooden vessel ever built. Its uniquely rounded hull, designed to ride the impact of encroaching winter sea ice, allowed the Fram to reach the unprecedented latitude of 84°4’ N, from where Nansen and his fretful companion Hjalmar Johansen made their way overland to 86°14’, “the farthest northern latitude that anyone had been”. As Murray explains in his Westminster prologue, the ghosts of Nansen and Johansen will be invited onstage to play themselves, as will the rest of the historical characters who constitute his resurrected cast.
What follows is a two-and-a-half-hour verse play within a play that traces Nansen’s transformation from a self-promoting Arctic adventurer (“a Darwinian with the emphasis on win”) to a leading humanitarian activist, focussing on his fundraising efforts on behalf of the victims of the Volga famine. It was for this work that Nansen was awarded the 1922 Nobel Peace Prize, but Harrison has come not to praise but to problematize, and Nansen’s complex voyage into altruism occasions a protracted discussion of mankind’s moral and aesthetic obligations when faced with the horrors of the world.
It is an important subject, and one to which theatre is particularly well suited, but Harrison’s decision to ventriloquize the entire proceedings through “Gilbert Murray”’s heavily rhymed couplets serves not only to obscure the debate, but at times to render it facetious:
God spare us goddam culture when the point of our discussion’s
the quickest way to save the lives of millions of Russians.
Harrison as Harrison is a wonderfully gifted poet and translator, but as “Murray” he succeeds in burying an issue of some urgency — the representation of collective suffering — beneath a layer of tiresome doggerel. T. S. Eliot’s famous observation that “the Greek actor spoke in his own language, [but] our actors were forced to speak in the language of Professor Gilbert Murray” applies just as well to Harrison’s Nansen (a world-weary Jasper Britton), forced to advance his objections to artifice in a pointedly artificial manner:
‘Shut up, Dr Murray, homeless people need a
place to eat and sleep and shit, not bloody old Aida!’
The debate gains bite, however, when more visual forms of rhetoric come in for analysis, Nansen’s harrowing slide show from the Russian famine serving to silence both cast and audience until the photographs are revealed to have been staged. More truthful than the grisly archive, or so the playwright seems to suggest, is Sian Thomas’s compelling famine soliloquy, a “messenger speech” delivered in the character of a starving Russian peasant who has turned to cannibalism to survive. It’s an extraordinary performance, and as Murray points out in one of his many professorial asides, such speeches were valued by the ancient tragedians above crude theatrical devices such as buckets of blood because they knew that their audiences were affected not by images but by the power of verbal testimony. It is why poetry still matters, he concludes, art having been invented
to give focus to our suffering and our pain
and the more it’s done through language the more we’ll stay humane.
Reliance on devices like the photograph and slide
will lead, I rather fear, to linguistic suicide.
This may well be what Harrison believes, too — he is, after all, a professional poet — but the play is nothing if not dialectical, as though fearful of the silence of a settled argument, so all resolutions are withheld. Harrison and his set designer (and co-director) Bob Crowley end it all instead with an apocalyptic white-out, a realization of Nansen’s astrometeorological projection of a frozen Earth abandoned by the sun. As Nansen and Johansen perch on the prow of the foundered Fram (what became of its ice-resistant hull?) they survey the now uninhabitable planet, an endless Arctic where “farthest north” means nothing and where humans must become “cuddlers” to survive. Though visually quite impressive, it’s an unconvincing ending, and unrelated to all that has gone before. Fram in the end is a puzzle of a play, and is likely to disappoint Harrison’s admirers. And anyone expecting a polar documentary is advised to give it a miss.