Tony Harrison and Bob Crowley
I wanted to like it. A play about such a multi-faceted Norwegian seemed exciting enough. Add in historical figures rising from the dead to write the play that we see, and the use of verse that accurately imitated their style, and this looked on paper like a cracking evening. In the event, however, the play’s cleverness also proved its downfall.
Fram tells the story of Fridtjof Nansen, the explorer who constructed the Fram (Norwegian for ‘Forward’), a ship strong enough to freeze in pack ice and drift across the North Pole.
But the play is about so much more. It is told from the standpoint and in the language of Gilbert Murray (Jeff Rawle), the Greek scholar and Nansen’s friend. Adopting Frayn’s ‘Copenhagen’ technique of telling the story from ‘beyond the grave’, Murray rises from Poets’ Corner to write his play ‘Fram’, enlisting the help of actress, Sybil Thorndike (Sian Thomas). Murray tells of Nansen’s winter stuck in Franz Joseph’s Land, sharing a sleeping bag with his only companion, Hjalmar Johansen (Mark Addy), to survive the cold.
A key component of the play is Nansen’s own Darwinist beliefs. In the cold, he illustrates these through his willingness to feed the weakest husky to the others. When, however, his exploring achievements are subsequently overshadowed by Roald Amundsen’s, he takes on new roles, becoming a politician who aids the dissolution of the Norwegian-Swedish Union, and furthering relief work for the Russian famine in 1922. The question is whether Nansen, when no longer ‘on top’, decides to alter his Darwinist stance, or whether he simply employs new techniques to enable him to ‘survive’.
Fram thus questions whose interests apparently altrusitic actions serve. This comes to a head in a scene where several characters decide how to raise public awareness and money for the Russian famine. Murray, believing film footage too shocking, argues that the public will respond better to poetry written on the famine. Thorndike, conversely, believes her own portrayal of a starving Russian on the stage will exact the most tears. Is each really interested in helping the starving or themselves? Similarly, Johansen congratulates two victims pictured dying in each others’ arms for adopting such a photogenic pose.
Such complex ideas, however, were overshadowed by the play being told in ‘Murray style’ verse, his turn of phrase being captured with striking authenticity. It sounded a good idea, but an entire three hour play delivered in his ‘trite’ rhyme (as the play made clear, T.S. Eliot hated Murray’s work) felt monotonous. With each character delivering their own verses, the play felt like a series of monologues, and so rarely did we see real interaction between the characters. When Murray declared that he was sure others could have told the story better, I couldn’t help but agree.
Rawle as Murray seemed too kindly and weak. True, this was a man acutely aware of his shortcomings, but in this portrayal we saw too little of the academic seriousness that was surely there as well. Jasper Britton captured Nansen’s steely determination, but was deprived of any real chance to reveal his inner feelings by a script that relied too much on the words of other characters to explain them. Only Thomas as Thorndike managed to use her lines to deliver a convincing portrayal of the archetypal diva.
The themes were certainly interesting, exploring success and failure, survival, prophesying (Nansen foresees a time when the world is covered in ice) and the contrasting worlds of the gifted, wealthy and starving poor. But almost too much was covered. I didn’t object to receiving no definitive conclusions on any of these issues, but I felt unsure about where many of the explorations were leading at all. Under such circumstances, images projected onto the stage that were impressive in their own right a stained glass window in Westminster Abbey turning into the London Eye, Murray and Thorndike actually walking into the National Theatre to stage their own play, and London covered in ice just felt like further distractions.
I doubt that anyone involved with the play could have anticipated that it wouldn’t quite come off until the first performance. But one could clearly sense the boredom in the audience, and see the empty spaces after the interval. It was ultimately disappointing that when there should have been so much to merit it, I was unable to feel more than I did.