Rory Mullarkey’s new play Saint George & The Dragon starts appropriately with the mythical battle itself. The fight, however, is shown not on stage, but rather left to our imagination, with commentary provided by the onlooking neighbourhood assembled on stage. The Dragon, shown solely in its human form whilst on stage, is commendably portrayed with facetiousness & satire by Julian Bleach.
The Dragon’s aid Henry, the excellent Richard Goulding, proudly waxes lyrical on the fighting prowess of the Dragon. He is humorous in his faux assurance as the Dragon loses two of its three heads, which crash down from high up behind you to dramatically land on the stage in a cloud of smoke and sparks. When the battle is won, and the Dragon ‘destroyed’, the previously sheepish and rejected George is once again hailed a hero, summoned back to the Brotherhood of Knights to fight the other Dragons that remain.
Before he goes, he dares the neighbourhood to dream and prosper in his absence, putting up his bloodstained battle garments as a flag for the community: St George’s Flag. Thus starts the accelerated progression of ‘England’. Each year George returns from his travails, the town has advanced considerably – at first the Industrial Revolution, followed by modernity in all its glory.
The production’s set is simple at first in its appearance, a medieval neighbourhood with small huts and cottages, but rapidly ameliorates in tandem with the progression of the isle itself to ultimately portray modern London on an impressive scale. The floor slopes up into a mountain dotted with houses, towering over the town, and perfectly symbolising the constant striving of its inhabitants. It is relatively narrow for the infamously vast Olivier stage, but it works nicely in compressing the action for the audience and feels more intimate.
The Company is as a whole excellent, and Mullarkey distributes his work expertly, each character forming its own identity and changing with the times. Amaka Okafor’s Elsa, the female lead, has a particularly rewarding character arc, morphing from damsel in distress to tireless teacher, and outgrowing the need for her betrothed St George. Okafor is a standout performer, along with notable performances from Gawn Grainger, who exudes wisdom with a light touch as her father, and an impressively industrious Lewin Lloyd as ‘Boy’, the orphan of the village.
However, whilst the company collectively enrich their characters admirably, they are the vehicle for the play to work its magic, rather than the other way around. St George & The Dragon is a vast philosophical metaphor of a play; symbolising the perils of progression, patriotism, heroism, idealism & individualism. It uses the old fairytale ingeniously to reiterate time and again the problems with the idealism we are all guilty of in dreaming of a ‘better future’. It is a fiercely intelligent representation of this evil, and how it manifests itself within us.
St George himself, played with aplomb by John Heffernan, is an arrogant, charming & ultimately naive hero – essentially the archetypal English hero. He foolishly believes in his ability, and his ability alone, to vanquish all terror with one swipe of his sword, granting total prosperity. He represents the patriarchal follies of not only English culture but one that has swept the world over. He is the old-fashioned hero, unfit and out of touch with modern times. The play fundamentally revolves around the Lao Tzu principal that “if you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself”. Thus, it is not the external heroes that save us from our ‘dragons’, but rigorous introspection.
Review by Wilfred Laurence
A folk tale for an uneasy nation.
A village. A dragon. A damsel in distress.
Into the story walks George: wandering knight, freedom fighter, enemy of tyrants the world over. One epic battle later and a nation is born.
As the village grows into a town, and the town into a city, the myth of Saint George which once brought a people together, threatens to divide them.
Saint George and the Dragon at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre
Age Restrictions: Suitable for 13+.
Show Opened: 4th October 2017
Booking Until: 2nd December 2017