Saint George and the Dragon
National Theatre, 31st October 2017
This must have looked a great idea on paper. A state of the nation play, with much to say about ill at ease contemporary Britain, told as allegory, in a format and staging that nods to a fairy tale. Writer Rory Mullarkey took as his inspiration The Dragon, the most well known play from Soviet writer Evgeny Schwartz which was an allegorical satire on Stalinism, with the knight Lancelot in the lead. Clearly Mr Schwartz was a brave man. There is also a whiff of Chaucer and Medieval morality play in Mr Mullarkey’s construction.
Designer Rae Smith has created an imaginative set, like a child’s pop-up book, which roams across the three periods that Mr Mullarkey’s story encompasses, the Medieval, the Early Industrial and our own Post Modern present. Lyndsey Turner, who is expert at these big ideas plays, gives the production plenty of room to breathe, with a light and often amusing tone that matches the “modern fairy tale” mood, and the rest of the creative team conjure up some magical aural and visual effects.
John Heffernan’s George is very affecting, alternately brave, stupid, confused and naive, Julian Bleach’s Dragon is as pantomime camp as you like, Richard Goulding’s henchman who is redeemed has real presence and Amaka Okafor strikes the right balance as feisty champion Elsa. The rest of the 22 strong cast also fit like a glove and we have a groovy 6 strong band.
But there is a but. It just all seemed a bit vague. The idea that we have needed and relied on a hero in the past to rescue us English when things go t*ts up was efficiently conveyed as were some elements of what might constitute our national identity, the things that bind and divide us. A nation remember is just some lines on a map (admittedly some sea is involved here) and a largely fictional shared history and SGATD was neatly rooted in this premise. The dichotomy between the enemy without and the enemy within was also engagingly scrutinised.
It is just that, when all was said and done on stage, we didn’t seem to have moved any further from this point of departure. Enjoyable yes, creative yes but not really very satisfying for me, which, at a time when anyone and everyone theatrical is trying to jemmy in a state of the nation perspective, was a little disappointing. There is more than enough on show to warrant a visit and there are plenty of tickets for the rest of the run, but the play, like the current England it depicts, comes up a bit short.