By Tony Harrison
Directed by Tony Harrison and Bob Crowley
Venue: Olivier Theatre
Date: Thursday 1st May 2008
This was an interesting play, at least for the first half. The subject matter was relatively unknown to me, and the choice of characters seemed really weird until they all came together for the final scene before the interval. Perhaps I should mention here that Sian Phillips’s speech as Sybil Thorndike in that scene nearly put me off my ice cream! (I said nearly.)
The play starts in Westminster Cathedral. There’s a pillar with a marble decorated ledge, two large stained glass windows, one suspended at the front of the stage, the other at the back, and lots of echoing darkness. The stained glass windows were actually projections, which made them easy to remove and replace. The floor was covered with black cloth, also easily removed to reveal the arctic ice. Film projection was used quite a bit, both at the back and on a screen lowered towards the front of the stage. There was also a proscenium arch set with two side boxes, a drawing room type scenario (where Sybil gives her stomach-churning speech), and some good interpretations of snowy wastes. The first of these consisted of a central area with some jagged ice blocks sticking up at an angle, and lots of flat floes around it. The temporary hut was set up beside these blocks. Later, when Nansen and Johansen return to the Arctic, their ship, Fram (means “forward” in Norwegian), rises up majestically out of the floor, as the central part rotates. It was reasonably impressive, but I noticed that the ship’s masts were at right angles to the stage, although the ship itself was angled as if it were a submarine rising from the depths, and at speed. Very peculiar.
The play opens with the sounds of locks being turned, doors creaking open, and footsteps echoing along stone floors – slightly reminiscent of Tales of Old Dartmoor, a Goon classic. Eventually we get to see a character, Gilbert Murray, a dead professor who not only translated ancient Greek dramas into English verse, he also speaks the stuff, and at considerable length. He’s a little miffed that his translation of the Oresteia wasn’t used for the National’s production some years ago (funnily enough, they used Tony Harrison’s instead), but exceedingly miffed to find he’s buried only a short distance from T S Eliot, a man he obviously detested (and who didn’t speak highly of him). Fortunately he gets another character to explain things to, and this is Sybil Thorndike. He tells her he’s writing a play, in verse, about Fridtjof Nansen, a man they both knew, and there’s a part for her in it. Nothing gets an actress’s attention quicker than that, and despite the total lack of a script, set, costumes, rehearsal time etc, she’s persuaded to join in this ‘improv’ piece. She’s none too happy when she finds her dress is the wrong colour and she’s only in one scene, but those come later. And given the amount of time she does spend on stage (and screen) it’s hardly a bit part.
Anyway, they head off to the National, and the screens at the back show us their progress, including their arrival at the entrance to the auditorium. It’s no surprise when they come down the side aisles, Sybil to our right, Gilbert to our left, although from the audience reaction, you’d have thought this was the first time it had ever been done.
I should mention that canned applause was used frequently throughout the production, and it’s a good job too, as this audience seemed reluctant to play the part of the audience within the play. With one notable exception, we restrained ourselves from laughing, clapping, oohing and ahhing as much as possible – I suspect I would have enjoyed the play more if the audience had been a bit more giving. In fact, there were noticeable gaps amongst us for the second half, and I don’t usually see so many folk leave during the applause at the end. From the first scene, I felt there were jokes that didn’t get a suitable response, and Steve and I reckon those who came just weren’t expecting so much humour. Ah well.
Once Gilbert and Sybil were on stage (again), there was some faffing about with a Greek tragedy mask before we get to meet the subject of the play, Fridtjof Nansen. The screen comes down, and we see a slide projected onto it – Nansen is giving a talk about his Arctic experiences. He gives us a reasonably long opening spiel, introduces us to his colleague from the ice, Johansen, then repeats the opening bit twice more, as slides for his talks in Newcastle and Aberdeen appear on either side of the London one. At least the audience was warming up a bit by this time, so we got a chance to laugh at the humour of the repetition.
The screen at the front also covered up the set changes behind, so when Nansen moves from slide show to dramatic reconstruction, all that’s needed is for the screen to lift, and for the black cloth to be surreptitiously whisked off to the wings, like some dead body being dragged away by an alien creature on Doctor Who.
Nansen and Johansen showed us their ‘roomy’ hut (it was tiny), their bear fur sleeping bag which they planned to split in two now they had the luxury of separate sides of the hut, and their complete inability to communicate with each other. They were described as each other’s opposite, with Johansen being the dark side of Nansen’s soul. Personally I wouldn’t have wanted to spend much time with either of them by choice, but I can see how extreme need makes for stranger bedfellows than ordinary necessity. Nansen believed that, as the seas were cooling, the planet would end up covered in ice and snow – everywhere would be like the Arctic. It’s a chilling prospect, though shot through with irony given current concerns about the climate, and it made him a less than comfortable companion. Johansen puts the blame for his own suicide squarely on Nansen’s shoulders; he claims it was the depressing effect of Nansen’s beliefs that led to his drinking and terminal despair. I can see the man’s point. However, being dead means nothing in this play, where ghosts have a remarkably physical presence, so Johansen isn’t gone. Oh no, he becomes Nansen’s conscience and biggest critic, and probably gets more lines in that role than he did when he was (supposedly) alive.
Nansen’s successful trip meant he was welcomed back to Norway as a great hero. His achievement (he reached furthest north) was surpassed a few years later, so he also faced the challenge of despair and discouragement. However, he avoided the bullet, and chose instead to focus his energies on helping the rest of humanity in any way he could. This leads to the scene in a open-plan drawing room, which was using the very slow revolve to subtly change the perspective. It took me some time to spot, and I find that sort of thing helpful in what are otherwise quite static scenes. Various characters were present, all deeply involved in the relief effort for Russian famine victims. There’s some debate about the best way forward – film, radio, newspapers, acting – and the scorn heaped on the influence of the actors is so great that Sybil has to show them what she’s made of. Her moving speech as a starving Russian woman and mother was a little too long, but was also tremendously powerful, and even stomach-churning. The descriptions of eating cooked human flesh have stayed with me longer than I would like, and her wrecking of the buffet was entirely appropriate, if somewhat messy. Delivered as it was by a well-nourished, well-dressed woman, this speech ably demonstrated the power of performance to move people, and Sian Thomas got the loudest round of applause for her superb acting when Sybil made her triumphant exit.
The second half showed us Nansen’s tour to raise awareness and funds to help with the famine relief effort. He was using the slide show again, only this time the pictures were horrific and sadly not unknown today. He left, and Johansen’s ghost harangued us for a while, exhorting us to look at the pictures in case one of the dead bodies moved. He also stomped off, leaving us with the picture of two dead bodies, supposedly a brother and sister. After a very long pause, there was indeed some movement, which was startling, but I have no idea what any of that was supposed to convey to the audience.
From there, Gilbert and Sybil returned to Westminster Abbey, and after reviling T S Eliot some more, they were interrupted by a Kurdish poet with his mouth sewn up (don’t ask me). He struggled to express himself, and that was that. For a final scene, we get to see Nansen and Johansen on the ice again, this time on Fram, as it rose up from the depths. God knows what that bit was about. Nansen meets a couple of African kids, who’ve apparently been frozen to death because they stowed away in the undercarriage recess on a plane, and were taken too high to survive. The idea of these two being explorers of the frozen air appeals to Nansen; didn’t do it for me, though.
There was also a ballet during the first half, an actual ballet, inspired by Nansen’s drawings of the aurora borealis. It went on too long for me, as ballet has never been my thing, although I’m sure the dancer did a great job.
The ooh moment came during Nansen’s second slide show. To soften us up, he commented that when he showed his pictures of the animals on his arctic expeditions, it was only in England that people went… and the audience this time obliged with an “ahh” (a particularly lovely husky was on the screen at that point).
The performances were all fine, given the tedious nature of some of the dialogue, and the confusing jumble of symbolism and realistic, biography and fantasy. The constant use of rhyming couplets can jar after a while, especially when the rhymes are emphasised, as they often were here. There were a lot of in jokes, mainly to do with the Olivier itself, and although we got most of them, it did take the emphasis completely away from the subject matter, assuming the subject matter was something to do with Nansen and his career. The time spent on the ice was less than I’d expected from the pre-publicity, especially as almost all the photos used that part of the set. It was spectacular enough, although not the only good aspect of the set design.
Overall, it was a disappointing play with some good scenes, which could do with some serious editing if it wants a life beyond the Olivier stage.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me