Saint George and the Dragon is a remimagining of Evgeny Schwartz’ ‘The Dragon’, an allegory of Stalinism, by playwright Rory Mullarkey, centred on England. The tale is of George, a former Knight of the Brotherhood, who returns home after failing in his quest to free a town from a dragon, only to find that his native medieval England, a once happy realm, is now ruled by a dragon itself. After convincing the village to make him their champion, he slays the dragon, and sets them free, but is summoned back to the Brotherhood having proved himself. Away for a ‘year’ he comes back to find the Dragon has returned, but in the form of the systems of the Industrial Revolution. Having triumphed, he is again summoned away, while the village is left to ask why he has to leave. He returns a ‘year’ later to find himself in our perplexing, apathetic modern age, which he struggles to comprehend – cue jokes about jogging, pedestrians with mobile phones and megabowl.
The crux of the play lies in the script, partly as it is so very obviously social commentary, and partly also because the way it is written calls for a lot of declamatory type presentation. This is due to a mixture of poetry, deadpan humorous asides and characters speaking in large gatherings. Some of it is ingenious, insightful and very funny. Unfortunately, this is often in the midst of conversations that take too long to get to an obvious conclusion, some of it clichéd, and the parts of high drama come out of nowhere and are over far too soon. The main problem, however, is the sprawling nature of script, as it deals with everything from the oppression of economic systems to the very essence of human nature, and its darkest elements, although the Dragon remains a little undefined. Unfortunately, amid all this, the discussion of England seems lost, until the end when its a bit too obvious, and a little predictable. It’s thought-provoking but seems to lack precision in its discussion.
The direction designed to make the play a platform for this discussion fits the play perfectly, but does limit the performers’ possibilities a little. John Heffernan puts in a lovely turn as George, masterfully controlling tempo and humour, to bring humanity to an archetypal, and therefore deliberately one-dimensional character, while Amaka Okafor as Elsa, George’s fair maiden turned career professional, adds vulnerability and conviction. Julian Bleach does some great voice work as the sinister nemesis, Dragon. The best performances come from those whose characters are given more complexity in the script, including the torn Henry (Richard Goulding), the thoughtful Pike’s Son (Conor Neaves) and hard-edged Driver (Victoria Moseley), as well as Gawn Grainger as wise old Charles who is hopeless with technology. There are also some moments of lovely emotion between George and Boy (Reuel Guzman), and Luke Brady as Butcher’s Son. The few musical numbers help to give life to the script, and Tom Kelly’s band also provide some great atmospheric music, as well as adding energy to scene changes.
The most dynamic aspects though, are those of the set, designed by Rae Smith, with great use of the revolve with a ramped set, cottages and city blocks, and some wonderful projection. Bruno Poet’s lights are thoughtfully done with high octane flashpoints and add to the production’s identity, as well as some great use of smoke and energetic Alice Fielder’s (Kirsty Rider) penchant for explosives.
It tantalises, and interests, but ultimately doesn’t quite pack a punch, and takes a bit too long to get there.
Saint George and the Dragon is playing the National Theatre until December 2nd. For more information and tickets, see www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/saint-george-and-the-dragon