Fram, National Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

A translator of Greek tragedies, a classical actress, and an explorer who almost reached the North Pole are the unlikely leads of a verse drama that travels through time and space, pitting fact against fiction, individualism against international cooperation. Tony Harrison's play, which he has directed with set designer Bob Crowley, doesn't so much debate the issues as bang a lot of assertions together and shower us with the sparks, but its vigour and nutty novelty are good value at a higher price than the £10 Travelex ticket.

Fridtjof Nansen, who in 1893 penetrated deep into the Arctic in his great wooden ship Fram, really did know Gilbert Murray. Here Murray rises from his grave in Westminster Abbey and calls up Sybil Thorndike, his one-time Medea, to appear with him in his new play, Fram. We also see the aristocratic Nansen become a man who believes that, in order to survive, we must embrace one another, as he and his companion, Hjalmar Johansen, did in the Arctic.

Since the play stands up for poetry in a world dominated by fact and image, it's unfortunate that Harrison's verse does not provide much evidence for the defence. Clarity and force too often lapse into doggerel, and are further compromised by some anachronistic and nasty obscenity. These embarrassments are forgiven, however, with a devastating tour de force – Sian Thomas's Thorndike turns herself into a verse-speaking victim of Russian famine and demonstrates triumphantly that art can stand beside, and even tower over, reportage in the pantheon of pain.

Otherwise, however, it is the images that prove more impressive, such as the prow of the ice-covered Fram bursting through the frozen sea like some great white whale. And, along with Thomas's warm and skilful performance, there are Jeff Rawle's busy, lovable Murray and Jasper Britton's debonair but haunted Nansen. With his worried face, this actor never lets you forget this charming latter-day Viking has left part of himself on the ice.

To 22 May (020-7452 3000;; Fram is part of the £10 Travelex Exhibition. A version of this review has appeared in some editions of the paper