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‘Fram’ needs to get with the program

National Theater's play fails to come to life

The National Theater’s “Fram” can be accused of many things — I’ll come to them — but short of ideas it is not. However, when the background to those ideas is better expressed in the theatergoer’s accompanying program than on the stage, you know a show’s in trouble.

Unlike their Broadway counterparts, London theaters charge for programs, mostly gussied-up resumes of the cast and creatives plus an item on the show. The National’s programs, however, are more than worth the £3 ($6) cover charge, with a far healthier mix of essays, interviews, background analysis and rehearsal photos in addition to credits.

Full disclosure: I have occasionally contributed to the National’s programs. But I had no involvement with the one for “Fram.” It contains not only a 1,750-word essay on the life and work of the central character, Norwegian arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen, but 200-word summaries about the real-life characters who surround him in the play, plus historic newspaper headlines and photos. If only Tony Harrison’s play were as interesting.

“Fram” offers descriptions and debates about all aspects of Nansen’s life — from his explorations aboard his specially designed ice-breaking ship, which gives the play its name, to his role as chair of the Norwegian delegation to the post-WWI League of Nations, plus work for victims of the Russian famine, which won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922.

Yet despite putting all this in the mouths of actors, Harrison — who co-directs — fails utterly to bring them to life. Even with the vigorous work of designer and co-director Bob Crowley, juxtaposing speeches on various sets doesn’t make something theatrical.

There is much display — often on video — and even a solo ballet sequence, but, without developed conflict, pace, tension or subtext, there’s no drama.

What “Fram” does have is poetry. One of the U.K.’s foremost poets, Harrison has written the entire play in (often plodding) rhyming couplets. And one of the arguments for the play — estimable in theory — is that poetry has a raw power the “reality” of documentary misses. To pull that off, though, the poetry needs to be far more dramatic.

Peter Gill’s 1976 play “Small Change,” now revived by its author at the Donmar, is routinely labeled as poetic, though it’s written entirely in prose. There is, however, more dramatic poetry in a single, suspense-filled beat of that rapt evening than in almost three hours of “Fram.”

 Length, of course, shouldn’t really be an issue. Theatrical marathons can yield enormous dividends. Look at Canadian theater guru Robert Lepage. His notoriously lengthy spellbinders “The Dragon’s Trilogy,” “The Seven Streams of the River Ota” and “The Far Side of the Moon” famously matched quantity and quality.

His latest work, “Lipsynch,” will play the Barbican (one of its many co-producers) Sept. 6-14. A panorama about the voice, it spans 70 years, linking nine lives across locations from war-torn Vienna to pre-revolutionary Nicaragua and contemporary London. That description was culled from the press release, given that the show’s world premiere is not until September.

But hang on a minute, what world premiere? “Lipsynch” was performed in the U.K. last year at Newcastle’s Northern Stage. And last May it played Montreal’s Festival TransAmeriques. There are even reviews on the company’s website.

A Barbican spokesperson sees it differently. “Those were works-in-progress,” she argues. “Robert is always throwing things out, changing and developing things. In Newcastle, it was six and a half hours. It’s nine hours now.”

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