Saint George and the Dragon @ National Theatre: Dragon’s Back, Tell A Friend

I’m not sure what I expected Saint George and the Dragon to be like, but it sure as hell wasn’t a three-act pantomime that lurches through time and genre and technology, and manages to encompass pastoral folk elements, a critique of capitalism and a bust up in a pub.

It’s a weird play.

SPOILERS AHOY.

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When it starts, with George (a gorgeously-wigged John Heffernan) addressing the audience in verse(?) I was a) having Boudica flashbacks and b) convinced that this was going to be a traditional retelling of the legend of Saint George. We meet him as a knight in Medieval England, convinced to rescue a maid who has been promised as a sacrifice to the dragon, who has been ruling England for many years (how and why is never explained.)

It basically descends very quickly into panto. When the dragon (Julian Bleach) makes his entrance, black cloak trailing behind (half the fun is watching him try not to trip over it) you’re wanting to boo. It’s such a camp performance and you either want more of it, or you want it to stop. I feel like this wouldn’t matter if the whole production had that heightened, comedic, panto campiness – but it doesn’t go that far, and it suffers for it. I hate to say it, but I genuinely found the first 40 minutes or so excruciating. Its morals are so simple, its characters so straightforward and one-dimensional, the production needed to be flatter – but it treats the material like fucking Hamlet. I was thinking as it was happening “this is a really decent kids’ play. Why isn’t it being marketed as such.” The production is trying to twist the text into something it cannot be. Don’t have your actors try and make deep psychological sense of something when you’re also going to have a papier-mache dragon head zoom down from the circle. TWICE.

And then it changes. And it becomes far more interesting.

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After the first dragon has been banished – and you do clock fairly quickly that we’re careering through the folk tale ridiculously quickly for a play promised to be 2 and ¾ hours long – we are flung forward in time; a year in the narrative, but in practice this is a shift from pre-industrial pleasant lands to the dark, satanic mills of the new towns. The dragon that keeps these people under his grip is – you guessed it – the capitalist system itself. Bureaucracy, and law, and plans, and the machine that crushes everyone it touches, maiming children and never to be stopped. It’s a slight change in tone, as you can imagine. Suddenly there’s an attempt to talk about politics seriously, through the lens of an English folk tale. Now that’s an interesting idea to me. It’s still simple, what could be a full length play in itself is crammed into another 40 minutes as George takes it upon himself to rid the town of it’s capitalist by – wait for it – ripping up the city plans. WHAT. It’s panto as if written by David Hare. There’s no attempt to create myth, or an internal logic, and these are things that seem intrinsic to me when retelling these stories.

It is nevertheless the most interesting, and probably the most successful part of the play. It throws up ideas that I wish it delved into.

Once again, the people are left to close their eyes and imagine the future. When we return after the interval, that future seems to be what we’re living now, a glossy city where no one looks at each other and no one cares if you’re crying on the bus. (It’s clearly a Southern city then.) The dragon in this world is apathy, and as such it lurks within all of us.

Super deep, right?

And it’s this idea that the dragon is no longer tangible that sends George spiralling out of control; there is no simple objective, nothing to slay for him any more, and he cannot take it. He resorts to violence; misplaced, inappropriate violence. It loses him the trust of the people, and then his life.

But this strange, third act also has some of the strongest bits. There’s a scene in a pub where a disguised George gets absolutely hammered watching a football match that actually sort of works? It ends with him pissing everyone off and starting a fight (Scouser throws the first punch, hmm.) We then see him sobering up in a police cell with the aforementioned Scouser, and it too is a strong scene. Don’t ask me what it’s about exactly, because I’ve already forgotten, but it just drew attention to what the play could have been; how does a man on a mythic quest cope when the objective of that quest has irrevocably changed?

*

Ultimately, this is a production of missed opportunities. Where there could have been a dissection of what this folk icon means in 21st century Britain – it being England no longer after all, there was a confusing sequence of repeated motifs and pithy speeches about how good England is. Only at the very end is this given any kind of rebuttal – the Empire does exist in this world, but is given about 10 seconds of discussion time. The ideas of time expanding and contracting, so beautifully done in Ella Hickson’s Oil a year ago that could have resurfaced again here, are glossed over if it can be said they are even considered. There is only the surface here, as hard as the cast work to try and make it otherwise (Gawn Grainger gives a particularly good performance.)

And again, I hate to say it, but it’s probably due to a complete misconceiving of the production. It just doesn’t work. The set doesn’t make particularly good use of the space, forcing everything onto the downstage rim of the Olivier. It aches to stretch back, using the full space – it has a big enough company to fill it after all. And the set itself looks… cheap. Not good, panto cheap, but ‘we need to do this under budget’ cheap. Then again I was front row, so maybe it was just because I could actually see the damn paint strokes on the floor.

If it was attempting to find a centre, it needed to be either campier, or altogether more serious. Because what happens on stage is frustrating.

If this sounds at all snarky, I’m sorry. I don’t want to be that dick that snarks about someone else’s work. I guess I’m just frustrated that there are interesting ideas in the text here, but they’re all confused and twisted into a production that simply does work.

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AN ADDITION: congratulations to Victoria Mosely for being the first actress with a Scouse accent I’ve seen at the National (That’s her in the photo at the top.) It brings the total number of Scouse accents I’ve seen on the London stage this year to 3 – and she was 2 of them (she was also in My Brilliant Friend.) I suppose it is worth noting that this production represents England in the widest demographics it could, across race, gender and accent. So that’s good*. But it should probably be a given by now, shouldn’t it?

*still a posh white dude though that tries to save the day. Just saying.

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