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.
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