In the interest of fairness: This is a review of a preview performance, the play has not yet had its press night.
Although exactly what they're going to do between now and then to improve it, short of cutting at least half the text, beats me.
Art versus politics. The manipulation of people by the media. Famine, and the selfishness of charity. Tonight cjg1
and I watched any attempt at discussing these and other large themes, crushed under the weight of Tony Harrison's ego. I'm trying and failing to think of anything I've seen at the theatre that's been quite as self-indulgent as the National Theatre's new premiere Fram
- a level of self-indulgence that would make Russell T Davies blush. The start actually isn't too bad, as we join Aeschylus' translator Gilbert Murray (Jeff Rawle) and famous actress Sybil Thorndike (Sian Thomas) as they return from the dead in a framing device to tell the story of Arctic explorer and philanthropist Fridtjof Nansen (Jasper Britton.) The fact that the prologue lasts half an hour is an unfortunate sign of what's to come though.
Harrison also directs (along with Designer Bob Crowley) this production, and sadly this means any chance of someone reigning in his excesses is lost. The play lasts over three hours, much of which is spent repeating the same things over and over in increasingly trite verse. Not only have I rarely felt so patronised by a playwright, but what should be sobering stories about the early 20th Century famine in Russia are rendered meaningless. For instance we are told of victims picking the hay out of horse shit to make bread with, which I would have thought conjures up enough of a picture. But no, Harrison has to tell us again, explaining how the hay goes through the horse's digestive system and is then picked up and eaten, and then in case we weren't clear he explains it a couple more times. I swear at some point he helpfully tries to explain what a horse is.
Similarly, at the end Nansen, from beyond the grave, tells the story of some African boys for some reason. They stowed away on a plane and died of the cold, which was a bit like the Arctic but up in the sky, as we're told eight or nine times because we're too stupid to see the link the first time it's laboriously explained to us. They didn't have a two-man sleeping bag. No, but Nansen and his fellow explorer Johansen did. Yes, they did, but the African boys didn't. Which was bad. But the explorers did, which was good. Unlike the African boys. They didn't have a sleeping bag. The others did though. They had a two-man sleeping bag and kept warm. The boys didn't have one and died. I'm honestly not even coming close to how many times this got repeated for the hard of thinking.
Much of the time-wasting is downright bizarre. We could have just been told that Nansen's Arctic travels inspired a ballet, but no, we have to see about 10 minutes' worth. At the end of the first act we have the charity workers discussing how best to use the new media to get across their message, in a half-hour scene as drearily accurate (apart from the verse) as a real meeting - I felt like I should be taking minutes. While ironically having one of the characters imagine how useful it would be if TV had been invented works, this lengthy discussion of media manipulation by people at the birth of it woefully underestimates the audience's understanding of the issue from a modern viewpoint. Similarly, having Thorndike endlessly show how she doesn't have to be starving for real to act that part, just made me think "yes we know how acting works, we're in a theatre." In the second act a Kurdish poet with his eyes and lips sewn shut appears BECAUSE THIS HAS RELEVANCE TO MODERN LIFE DO. YOU. SEE!!!!! He proceeds to moan for about five minutes.
A talented cast do their best but are completely shafted by the script. Worst-off is Mark Addy as the suicidal Johansen, who even after his death sticks around for no real reason other than to provide completely pointless cynicism with no real answers (and, of course, to explain the thing about the horse shit another dozen times.) Rawle manages to inject some life every time he appears, but Fram
is a sinking ship. The play is lumbered with a ridiculous amount of false endings. Christopher and I spent the last 15 minutes in fits of giggles, prompted when the girl in front of me started applauding in the desperate hope that if everyone acted
like the damn thing was over, it really would be. Sadly she failed. I also snorted when Thorndike mentioned Murray's "attempt at writing a play" - when you think of it a bit of a shameful attempt to blame the play's failings on the character whose style Harrison is pastiching. Near the end the Drum stage failed and a stage manager had to come on and ask us to wait a few minutes for them to fix it - some people left, possibly escaping, or maybe thinking it was a postmodern ending. I'm still not sure it wasn't
part of the show, it'd make about as much sense as anything else.
An absolute disaster. It'll probably win an Olivier.Fram
by Tony Harrison is booking until the 22nd of May at the National Theatre's Olivier stage.