The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

Oliver, Na­tional Theatre, Lon­don SE1

IF ANY­ONE can make a grip­ping drama out of three hours of rhyming couplets, poet-play­wright Tony Har­ri­son can.

But in his heav­ily sym­bolic bi­o­graph­i­cal drama about Nor­we­gian ex­plorer Fridtjof Nansen (Jasper Brit­ton), Har­ri­son and fel­low co-di­rec­tor Bob Crowley take no chances.

Us­ing Crowley’s spec­tac­u­lar de­sign of the frozen Arc­tic and his gi­ant video pro­jec­tions, there is much for the eye to feast on, even when the ear tires of Har­ri­son’s verse.

His dra­matic de­vice is a play within a play. In West­min­ster Abbey’s Poet’s Cor­ner the ghost of clas­si­cist Gil­bert Murray (Jeff Rawle) wak­ens the spirit of the great theatre ac­tress Dame Sy­bil Thorndike.

She is to star in Murray’s drama about Nansen, in which Murray fo­cuses on the ex­plorer’s ca­reer as a League of Na­tions am­bas­sador and his fight to at­tract the world’s at­ten­tion to the plight of starv­ing mil­lions in post-revo­lu­tion­ary Rus­sia.

Nansen’s fel­low ex­plorer Jo­hansen (Mark Addy) is cast as his nar­ra­tor. “It’s a great re­lief to es­cape that farter and that snorer, and get my spir­its lifted by the sight of the Aurora,” de­clares Nansen of his bear-shaped and bearded fel­low ex­plorer.

What starts off as a play about in­com­pat­i­ble per­son­al­i­ties ends up as an ar­gu­ment about whether images or drama are best at por­tray­ing atroc­ity.

The row is played out be­tween the men from the Amer­i­can Re­lief Ad­min­is­tra­tion, who be­lieve that their (still) shock­ing doc­u­men­tary film is the best way to raise aware­ness and funds, and Sian Thomas’s re­doubtable Thorndike, who proves, in a bril­liant dis­play, how a well-fed ac­tor can por­tray star­va­tion.

Al­though, in the scene were the pro­tag­o­nists visit the Bol­shoi, the bal­le­rina (Vi­viana Du­rante) un­in­ten­tion­ally puts the case that dance is as pow­er­ful than both. At least, she would if Fram (Nor­we­gian for “for­ward” and the name of Nansen’s boat) were to rep­re­sent drama.

This ram­bling and epic play has a good deal to say about the our mod­ern re­spon­si­bil­ity to­wards vul­ner­a­ble third-world pop­u­la­tions. But its lack of fo­cus di­lutes the mes­sage. (Tel: 020 7452 3000)

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