Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Thought for the Day • CUTTING ICE • Fram • 2008

Fridtjof Nansen [Wikipedia]

Fridtjof Nansen [Wikipedia]

Tony Harrison has never trodden the conventional path. Harrison’s The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus with its dangling phalluses, his superb rendering of The Oresteia and the muscular sonority of hisThe Mysteries have given me some of the most arresting theatrical moments of my forty years of theatre going. Now he has done it again in Fram, a piece bound to set certain viewers and critics on edge. Quite a few spectators did not come back after the interval at the preview I saw. Why? Harrison was maybe just beginning to get a little bit too near the knuckle for their liking.

Fram starts off comfortably enough, resurrecting the spirits of Dame Sybil Thorndike and Greek scholar and translator Gilbert Murray to tell the tale of Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen. Nansen was a pioneer of arctic exploration but went on to become a leading humanitarian and peace and aid activist working for the League of Nations.

If Nansen and his famous round-bowed arctic icebreaker, Fram, is Harrison’s core focus, it is also the metaphor for a much darker exploration in favour of words over images – in particular today’s distorting televisual and photographic imagery – and an environmental warning about our destruction of the planet. Harrison, once again, is not afraid to shock and use shock tactics to shake us out of our comfortable complacencies though ironically, he uses images of the great Russian famine of the early 1920s to question our whole concept of charity-giving and its hypocrisies.

It hardly makes for easy viewing. Sîan Thomas’s Dame Sybil throws up at one point; at another, two famine victims, presumed dead, jerk and scream. And verbal descriptions of explorers devouring husky dogs, and Russian cannibalism by victims forced to eat their own from starvation, are deliberately harrowing.

Harrison also mixes genres. Fram itself is seen as a verse play, conjured by the classicist and Greekophile Murray from the depths of Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner and acted out on the stage of the National against a cyclorama of today’s Thames and the London Eye. Playing fast and loose with time shifts and in-the-moment actuality allows Harrison to get in various in-house quips about theatre, the National, and Gilbert’s own amusing vendetta against that other verse-monger, T S Eliot. But over and above the fun and games – there is even an Aurora ballet moment (no, not the Sleeping Beauty version but one celebrating the aurora northern lights variety) there is, again, a serious point at stake. Murray was devoted to the primacy of Greek tragedy as a means of communicating the inexpressible horror of mankind’s behaviour. But after Auschwitz, as the German philosopher, Theodor Adorno commented, ‘Writing poetry is barbaric’. What price art now? Is art an irrelevancy in our world of horrors? Can words be used any more to save us from ourselves?

Upon such intractable dilemmas Harrison sets out to question, in a sense, his own validity. It’s a mocking, not wholly successful venture. But in these days of unmitigated trivia and shallowness, it is a wonderfully brave and angry one. Directed by Harrison with designer Bob Crowley – who, at one point, has the Fram emerging in all her icy magnificence up from the bowels of the Olivier – the play would certainly have benefited from the judicious cutting that fresher eyes might have brought to it. Jeff Rawle as Murray, however, brings a delightfully generous air to the teetotal, somewhat ascetic vegetarian scholar whilst Mark Addy adds a lethal conscience-pricking northern fury to Nansen’s compatriot and arctic sidekick, Hjalmar Johansen. It may have been slated by some critics but give me a ‘failed’ Harrison any time over glibber fashion-seekers.

Carole Woddis © 2008

Originally published on R&V 03-05-08

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