The problem with writing in rhyming verse is that it can become clunky and predictable. You find yourself groaning or giggling at the forced rhymes and deliberate wit or humour can become predictable because you can see what the rhyme is likely to be.
Of course there are times, in the hands of an expert that the rhyme scheme is a muted backbeat driving transcendently beautiful language.
This play has both the clunk and the beauty. I wondered sometimes, if the awkward rhymes were supposed to relate to Gilbert Murray, the classicist and alleged writer author of the play we were watching, and his reputation for pedestrian verse translations of Greek tragedies. Certainly I thought I found myself noticing the clunk more when he was speaking. It isn't a reflection on Jeff Rawle who played him and was ,I thought rather good.
I could understand Tony Harrison using a classicist as his narrator and the resultant links to Greek drama: Harrison's version Orestia was my first play at the National (seen in a single day's school trip) and I've seen several other of his translations. However I rather doubted whether Nansen's story was really Greek or tragic (the programme notes mention a Nansen biography subtitled a hero in a Greek tragedy). While he lived through and was involved in deeply tragic times, Nansen appears to have strolled through them with relative ease and was even able to develop a rampant sexual appetite (allegedly) to accompany his fame. This is a problem with this play, there is no drama at its centre, or at least no flawed hero. Although he is followed by the ghost of his former close but hated companion from an arctic expedition, it isn't exactly a haunting. I couldn't quite see the point even with the character well played by Mark Addy. At the interval I couldn't quite see what was left to tell of the story after its first 90 minutes.
There are brilliant things in this play – the 'starvation speech' played out by Sian Thomas as Sybil Thorndike is a highlight – but there are also many dull bits which make the play's three hours seem longer.
I also began to notice the occasional habit of repetition where an actor would describe something then repeat the description in elaborate detail. The elaboration would often be beautifully stated but was underscored with a voice in my head saying “but you only just said that”.
Another thing, which might be imaginary was that I began to associate Harrison's most powerful and effective poetry with the more disturbing and crude images or descriptions. Blood, cannibalism and sex seemed to bring out the best verse.
Some bits to mention: There was a shocking video projection featuring two victims of the Russian famine; A pleasant video projection drifting along a bridgeless Thames from Waterloo to Westminster. There was also video of two of the actors rushing into the theatre and arriving for real in the auditorium, as well as Nansen walking off the stage and into a projection.
And at the end we get the ship rising out of the Olivier stage. It's a very nice touch but I didn't really get the point.