Tuesday 24 October 2017

Saint George And The Dragon @ The National Theatre

Saint George And The Dragon @ The National Theatre

We all enjoy a good story. Theatregoers especially: theatre is, at its core, storytelling. And few stories have been retold as many times as Saint George and the Dragon. For us Brits, it’s a story of national pride.

But for his new play Saint George And The Dragon, playwright Rory Mullarkey equally takes inspiration from Russia. The Dragon was written in 1943 by Russian playwright Evgeny Schwartz, in which a knight battles a dragon to free his people only for that dragon to be replaced by a tyrannical and oppressive dictator a year later. It’s a clear parallel to Stalin and here Mullarkey follows a similar formula to comment on both British history and its present.

We begin with a medieval tale of the titular George (a jolly John Heffernan) who defeats a dragon who is evil personified (Julian Bleach, in deliciously snake-like form) to save his hometown and win the affections of the maid Elsa (Amaka Okafor). The script initially begins in rhyme and it’s all presented on a set designed by Rae Smith like a miniature diorama, with country cottages overshadowed by brooding clouds on a landscape that stretches upwards in faux-perspective. It lends the drama a light-hearted, leg-slapping feel that replicates a fairytale – albeit one with a serious moral about community and politics. There are brilliant touches from director Lyndsey Turner too: the way the battle with the dragon occurs in the far distance over our heads before huge dragon heads come tumbling down to the stage; the way blood spills on George’s shirt in a cross shape that becomes the flag. It’s whimsical and fun.

The dragon defeated, we move forward in time, the diorama morphing into a Victorian-esque industrial cityscape with steam erupting from miniature factories and a clock tower that looks suspiciously like Big Ben. George returns to his homeland after all this time, only to find the dragon has returned – here as a greedy and corrupt industrial leader. The drama cleverly mimics the first act, culminating in a different sort of dragon battle in which George rips up a map of the area to metaphorically return the land to its people. It’s a smart twist on the origin story with a heady, darker atmosphere.

All that, though, is just a preamble to the main event in the play’s final act now updated to – when else? – present day. The set morphs once more, this time to a neon lit metropolis, Grant Olding’s music also updating from brass and fiddles to synths and guitars. And yes, the story repeats all over again: this time the dragon has evolved further. He’s present in us all, in the paranoia and anxiety and fear that’s sweeping the nation. When George returns, he’s less a hero and more a symbol of a simpler past now faded from memory. He’s over-privileged and arrogant. He’s out of touch with his people. He can no longer help them – the people must rise up and help themselves.

The parallels to current politics are far from subtle, though in this final act the play does capture the state of our nation, enraptured in political turmoil, downbeat and miserable. And along with its themes of heroism, storytelling and the cyclical nature of politics and its long history of tyrannical dragons, the play ultimately has a positive message that looks to a brighter future. It’s just this epic is so long-winded! Even during the first act, it’s painfully obvious the direction the story is heading and fatigue has set in long before the finale. When we reach the end, the play’s call to arms has been somewhat laboured.

Even if its climax isn’t all that satisfying though, Saint George And The Dragon remains an engaging piece of storytelling thanks to its stellar cast and set design. The journey is an enjoyable one, even as it takes us down a dark and pessimistic road.


Watch: Saint George And The Dragon runs at the National Theatre until 2nd December.

Saint George And The Dragon @ The National Theatre

Saint George And The Dragon @ The National Theatre
Photos: Johan Persson