Tyranny and the power of nationalism to divide a nation achieves a modern resonance in Rory Mullarkey’s new play Saint George and the Dragon (National’s Olivier Theatre), directed by Lyndsey Turner.
Returning to his hometown, George, a weary traveller, is determined to save it and the women he loves from an evil dragon. He slays the least but soon, though, he has to go to other villages and save their people. Saint George also comes home to vanquish a familiar foe and each time he returns, he marvels at how the town has changed. In fighting for his people, he originates a myth that grows into a narrative of nationhood. However as the country develops embracing the Industrial Revolution, before descending into the alcohol-filled present, the story lurches into arrogant complacency, while the dragon keeps reappearing, an ugly symptom of Englishness.
This is obviously intended as an allegory of Britain over the years, terrorised by forces we can’t control and indeed after a bracing and poetic first twenty minutes I had high hopes for this drama. But then it seems to lose its grip and becomes an odd mix of tones combining pantomimic, Monty Pythonesque jokes with an anarchic, simplistic style, in what is a long and meandering play.
Rae Smith’s design is basically an enormous sloping map that veers sharply upwards towards the rear of the stage and is dotted with small, cardboard cut-out buildings. The imposing set employs the theatre’s revolve to bring on difficult environments across the ages, as cottages become houses in the Industrial Age and soon office skyscrapers in the present day. During a town meeting people sit down in these houses and we see the famed Saint George kicking a cornershop the size of a shoebox.
John Heffernan, initially timid, as George, lends quizzical solemnity to the role, as he blusters his way into a fight with a three-headed fire-breathing dragon, then when he returns to the present day mane flowing, armour glinting, is confronted with microwaves and Mega Bowls. Amaka Okafor is brazen and wry as his love Elsa, the damsel in distress.
This play, then, may hark back to the golden age of storytelling, but is laden with heavy exposition and flimsy characterisation, in its re-imagining of medieval myth, bringing the question of English identity bang up to date.
Saint George and the Dragon
Showing at the National’s Olivier Theatre until 2 December 2017Last modified: October 20, 2017