FORWARDS ALL THE WAY | April 9th 2008
Isabel Lloyd interviews Tony Harrison about his new play "Fram", opening this week at the National. They discuss Fridtjof Nansen, the dashing, tragic Norwegian explorer who inspired this all-verse play ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Spring 2008
In a strong spring line-up at the National Theatre, perhaps the most intriguing item is "Fram", a new play by the poet-playwright Tony Harrison (pictured in rehearsals) about the great Norwegian explorer and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen. Although he's writing in verse, as is his wont, the subject takes Harrison, author of the controversial TV film "V" and many adaptations from Greek drama, into uncharted waters. As well as Nansen, it deals with the classical scholar Gilbert Murray, the League of Nations, charity campaigning, and sharing a sleeping bag with someone you can't stand. So why such a sweeping subject? Intelligent Life talked to the author.
What first attracted you to Nansen? He was extraordinarily handsome, a scientist, an artist, an adventurer who never felt fulfilled, and the first celebrity fundraiser.
The Bob Geldof of his time? Yes. But also he was a man who loved poetry: he used it to seduce women and read it to keep sane in the Arctic. That gave me the excuse to write in verse--as if I needed one.
What does Fram mean? It's Norwegian for "forward", and was the name of Nansen's ship. He spent 18 months in it in the 1890s, drifting north in the Arctic pack ice, before setting off on foot with his companion Hjalmar Johansen, with whom he was utterly incompatible. They got further north than any man before, sharing a sleeping bag and eating polar bear and blubber. It took another 15 months to get home. They went forwards all the way.
You've always been drawn to Greek tragedy--where's the tragedy in Nansen's life? After the first world war, he changed from someone who had very Darwinian, ruthless ideas about the survival of the fittest, someone who had breakfasted on husky blood, to a model of compassion. He was appointed the first commissioner for refugees at the newly formed League of Nations, and later toured Europe giving lectures and raising money for the relief of the devastating famine in Russia.
That's more heroic than tragic, surely? But in the end he got a kind of despair. He found that once you start answering need, it grows and grows and can't be filled.
So hunger is a theme in the play? Yes, the hunger of the starving, the hunger to be somewhere else... It's like the open mouth of the mask of tragedy. Or of Munch's "The Scream"--which, incidentally, was finished just as Fram left for the Arctic, almost to the day.
It's not a hopeful piece. No. Nansen once wrote, "the world will end in ice". What does that reduce art, or compassion, to? In the play, I let Nansen's vision happen: an iceberg swallows Westminster Abbey.
That sounds very Hollywood. Oh yes--it's spectacular!
"Fram" National Theatre, London SE1, April 10th to May 22nd
(Isabel Lloyd is the comissioning editor of Intelligent Life)