Saint George and the Dragon.
Olivier at the National Theatre.
11 October 2017
Since the EU Referendum, and aside from the endless stream of Brexit debate, artists have been responding to the vote. On the Booker prize shortlist, Autumn by Ali Smith and Elmet by Fiona Mozley examine mythical constructions of England along with contemporary events, and Grayson Perry has created urns for Leavers and Remainers. Here at the National earlier this year, My Country by Carol Ann Duffy, examined the vote using Britannia and her regions, alongside the Celtic nations such as Cymru. And now Rory Mullarkey’s new play on the Olivier stage takes the legend of Saint George and the Dragon, and takes us from the imagined first slaying of the dragon to the present day. Saint George urges the citizens of his island to close their eyes, imagine what they can achieve, and work hard to make it happen. In the year he is away from the island, we spin to the Industrial revolution and then to the present day. Unfortunately, the play manages to misfire on many levels.
Plaudits for Rae Smith’s excellent set that uses every inch of the massive stage, a children’s pop up picture book design that perfectly suits the comic strip nature of the material. The scene change to the industrial revolution brings to mind the 2012 London Olympic opening ceremony, but is enjoyable none the less. It’s the perfect setting for the play, which is a poor graphic novel of a text, almost all the characters two dimensional, with only occasional depth and interesting concepts. The battle with the first dragon is brilliantly staged and exciting, again full credit to the design here. Yet this occurs 45 minutes into the show, there are many long minutes remaining. The Dragon is, of course, in human form, and represents oppression, commercialism, greed, and is in all of us in the final act- and interesting concept, yet presented as a pantomime villain. Mullarkey’s aim is ambitious, but he never gets below the surface of the story.
That any of this twaddle works is down to a wonderful comic performance by John Heffernan as George, with excellent comic timing and totally loveable. He is heroic when he needs to be, and his confusion when he returns to his island is a delight. Yet he is never called upon to go into depth, the perception of him as someone with a mental illness in Act Three is glossed over, he can never take us into darkness. As the Dragon, Julian Bleach channels his Davros and Shockheaded Peter to good effect, his voice dripping with arrogance, yet just a caricature of a baddie. The cast work incredibly hard to give the script depth, sometimes a little too hard, enthusiasm can sound a tad desperate. In fairness, there are some laugh out loud moments, but few and far between, and why have one joke about Mega Bowl when you can have five. Like the characters, we begin to yearn for the simplicity of the Olde Worlde, the first act being the best.
If you want pin sharp political satire that comments on the state of the nation, go across the river and catch one of the plays by James Graham currently packing them in. The Dragon that the National are grabbling with is to find a hit new play on the Olivier stage. On the evidence of this, they’ll be waiting a long time for a hero to charge in.