BWW Review: SAINT GEORGE AND THE DRAGON, National Theatre
Saint George and the Dragon is a story you likely heard as a child. "He's a picture in a storybook," notes one of the characters. "But that's not who we are anymore." Neither is the audience at the National Theatre. Harking back to a golden age of storytelling, Saint George and the Dragon falls on deaf ears. Laden with heavy exposition, Rory Mullarkey's play tells but does not show.
Returning to his hometown, George is determined to save it and the woman he loves from an evil Dragon. Soon though, he must go to other villages, save their people. Saint George always comes home though, to vanquish a familiar foe. Each time he returns, he marvels at how the town has changed. But it's not the only thing. We all know the story: a hero, a villain and a damsel in distress. But how do these roles change over time...?
Occupying "an island much like our own" across three time periods, Rae Smith's first vision is a green and pleasant land. Meadows stretch far beyond, projections working with set to play with perspective.
As the story moves through time, the set moves too. Cottages become houses in the Industrial Age and soon skyscrapers, signified with clunky pieces. During a town meeting, people sit down on these houses; elsewhere, we see the famed Saint George kicking a corner shop the size of shoebox.
Mullarkey's narrative is an odd mix of tones. The first half feels pantomimic: jokes come thick and fast, not outright slapstick but more Monty Python. As the second half opens though and we find ourselves in the modern day, we also seem to find ourselves in a Creative Writing GCSE.
Quite literally. The following is a set question from an Imaginative Writing OCR exam: "Imagine one or two characters from a text you have read, heard or seen find themselves in a different setting. Write a story about what happens."
That is exactly the premise of this show. In the Industrial Age, the Dragon is a metaphor for the system. Still stuck in the past, our once hero is now the enemy in the modern day. It's reductive, predictable and rather pointless.
English identity is at the heart of Mullarkey's play. Using the story of Saint George, he questions if there is a place for nationalism in England today. And what even is "England today"? Saint George barely recognises his friends in the modern day. As they scorn the football team bearing the English flag, he berates them for losing their belief.
By the end, they come to realise they no longer even believe in George or that golden age. While it takes the characters an age to reach that conclusion, this opinion is already held by the audience at the start of the play. What then was the point of the last few hours?
The audience is never even able to truly appreciate Saint George as a hero. We do not witness his famous victory; the ensemble tell us about it in awkward exposition. Marvel as the most dramatic scene is told to us in second- and third-person narration. Watch as the actors stare out into a confused auditorium. Look around as you fail to see Saint George or the Dragon in the fight between Saint George and the Dragon. Wonder how this has been going on for five minutes. Gasp as you question why the National Theatre, who staged His Dark Materials, didn't create a convincing Dragon or flying carpet.
Yes, there's now a flying carpet in Saint George and the Dragon. Or rather, the point is there isn't. Choosing to describe rather than dramatise, director Lyndsey Turner makes a bold but utterly baffling decision.
John Heffernan may be a man out of time, but his comedic timing is impeccable. Affable and awkward, Heffernan makes Saint George look like Colin Firth. Amaka Okafor plays his love Elsa, brazen and wry. Richard Goulding provides a standout turn as the heartbreaking Henry. All three convey real emotional depth, a credit to Mullarkey's characterisation.
As each Dragon is vanquished, a new age starts: "It's not the end...it's only the beginning". Running at two hours and 45 minutes, with three separate beginnings and endings to get through, you will wish it weren't. While entertaining, this just isn't enough. This Saint George and the Dragon is a man, a myth, a mess.
Picture credit: Johan Persson