Thursday 26 October 2017

Saint George and the Dragon

National Theatre
21st October, 2017, matinee

‘Where do we begin?’

Building and rebuilding society, righting the wrongs of the past, moving ever forward to that utopian idyll. But how do we, as individuals, as a community, ‘begin’ to change and reform? This question (I may not have recalled the exact wording) is oft asked by the residents of ‘a country a lot like our own’ after slaying the almighty Dragon (be it literal or metaphorical) in Rory Mullarkey’s Saint George and the Dragon. The Olivier stage has had what some would call a ‘difficult year’, with Rufus Norris’ programme of new works receiving a decidedly underwhelming response. So is Saint George destined to be used as further damning proof by the NT’s and Norris’ critics that the theatre is cursed, or, more prosaically, losing its touch? My answer is no, not quite. There is much to admire and enjoy in Mullarkey’s play – it’s a big, bold slice of English folklore, suitably epic in scale and it boasts some very nice performances, not least by John Heffernan (and his lovely, lustrous wig) as the titular warrior.

The play is episodic, split into three acts, but with a continuity brought by returning characters and themes. We begin in a sort of medieval, fantasy world in which the local community is enslaved by a three-headed dragon – which in his human form is embodied by a deliciously showy Julian Bleach. Into the fray steps George, a failed dragon-slayer in search of heroic deeds in which to redeem his name. 

While populated by traditional fairytale tropes – the damsel in distress, the orphan lost in the woods, etc. – this first act feels original and is the best, or certainly the most entertaining of the three settings. Yes the characters are rough-hewn and stereotypical and the jokes have all the subtlety of a studio sitcom, but it’s funny – I particularly enjoyed the visual joke about the origins of the St George flag and the satirical sentiment behind the Dragon’s claim that losing two of his three heads will, in fact, help him win the fight – and very, very theatrical. As with Common, Saint George also revels in an imaginative use of language, Mullarkey has great fun creating a Shakespearean-verse-cum-ye-olde-England pastiche patter. The theatricality and thrills get ramped up in Lyndsey Turner’s fun and exciting direction of the fight between George and the Dragon. Explosions abound and what I imagine is a deceptively simple sword trick really light up the stage in what is probably the highlight of the play.

Unfortunately, acts two and three, respectively set during the Industrial Revolution and a contemporary urban neighbourhood, lack drama and wit in comparison. The Dragon is no longer a physical entity that must be vanquished, but an altogether more tricky menace, residing in unjust social systems, the selfishness of individuals and a lack of community spirit. While this is an obvious, but truthful analogy, it doesn’t necessarily make for exciting theatre. Bleach gets little to do in acts two and three, despite his scenery chewing antics being a rollicking highlight of earlier scenes.

An over-eagerness to become a ‘state of the nation’ play makes for earnest moralising and a scramble to diagnose contemporary Britain’s problems, whether they be capitalist greed, the all-consuming rise of technology, people being too quick to take offence, or everyday violence. At the end of each act the characters, and the audience, are invited to ‘close your eyes’ and imagine a better future. This should be inspiring and moving, yet in its final utterance this motif seems tired and, frankly, a bit of a cop out. The question ‘where do we begin?’ seems more pertinent. If George is an emblem of traditional England, then what does his death signify (other than a neat rounding off of an earlier plot point)? If Mullarkey’s message is that we live in a constantly evolving world in which relics of the past don’t always belong, then sure, that seems pretty sensible, but there remains a muddled mix of nostalgia and a resistance to the past that don’t sit well together, and I’m confused as to where the play stands on such issues. The truth is that, while I enjoy plays about England and all the problems that they encompass, Mullarkey and Turner’s ideas – the transformation of a green and pleasant landscape into one of smoking rooftops and dark, satanic mills and then into the ‘broken’ Britain of microwave meals for one and bar room bust-ups – are nothing new. There is a façade of political and social relevance, but in reality, the play offers no answers and doesn’t really pose any questions.

While I’m unsure on the progression of the play, Mullarkey and Turner’s aesthetic vision is wonderfully realised in Rae Smith’s design. A sprawling English countryside stretches as far as the eye can see (literally – it spreads up the back wall and into the rafters) and is peppered with simple block houses with sketchy details. These storybook illustrations made 3D are both quaint and wry in design, echoing another of the NT’s nation plays, Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice, in the pantomime-esque use of flats and fluid stage space.

John Heffernan is a joy as George. A cross between genuine heroicness, with a sense of the almighty akin to Henry VII in Richard Goold’s Richard III at the Almeida last year, and a silly yet likeable ‘nice but dim’ character. As George becomes more alienated from the changing world we see this manifest in his increasing naivety and incongruous appearance and manner, emphasised in the last act where he gleefully attires himself in a mish-mash of charity bin clothes and orders ‘another glass of pint’ from the local pub. There’s a lovely communal feel to the ensemble cast, and Turner’s done an admirable job of staging a variety of English voices (I heard west country, North East, and Liverpudlian accents, to name but a few). Stand outs include Gawn Grainger’s sweet grandfatherly turn, Amaka Okafor as the not-so-subservient damsel in distress, and, in a rather touching side plot, Richard Goulding has a lovely redemption arc which sees the villainous Henry redeem himself over the years.

While Saint George and the Dragon is not a great play, it is enjoyable and feels very much like a National Theatre commission in a commendable, chancy way. It doesn’t appear to be selling well (the theatre was about two thirds full when we saw it), but I predict that it will become a staple of university libraries, alongside other Britain/England/Nation plays staged by the National such as much of Richard Bean’s oeuvre and Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads. Mullarkey’s play is messy, but ambitious, and is by no means the disaster that naysayers would have you believe.

Saint George and the Dragon plays at the National Theatre until 2nd December.

The company of Saint George and the Dragon.
Photo credit: Johan Persson

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