Sardines review: Saint George and the Dragon - National Theatre (professional)
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posted/updated: 12 Oct 2017 - edit review / upload photos
Saint George and the Dragon
A new play by Rory Mullarkey
society/company: National Theatre (professional) (directory)
performance date: 11 Oct 2017
venue: National Theatre (Olivier Theatre)
reviewer/s: Chris Abbott (Sardines review)

Company of Saint George and the Dragon. Photo: Johan Persson

Saint George has appeared on the English stage since the days of the Mummer plays but this must be the first time he has featured as the central figure in a new play at the National Theatre. No Turkish Knight to vanquish this time but a constantly mutating Dragon, an idea based on a Russian play apparently. The programme contains musings on English identity, the concept of the hero and our need for stories, giving us a clear indication of where the narrative might be heading.

The talk in the interval was very much of expectations of Brexit as dragon by the end, and that was certainly in the mix, although the target was wider than that. At the beginning, however, we were firmly in the time of the mythical St George, a rather Christ-like figure appearing from the Stalls in robes and flowing red hair. After vanquishing a three-headed dragon, impressively achieved with a mixture of powerful acting and theatrical artifice, the medieval village transforms to an industrial town, only for the dragon to reappear in the guise of industrialisation.

The third and least effective section of the play is heralded by the arrival of tower blocks and a jolly chorus (“Build it High”) sung by builders in hi-vis jackets, one of several moments when the whiff of pantomime was in the air. The present-day dragon is harder to slay however, for he has crept within us all and only joint action will save the day or we are lost. As the Dragon tells us, “I am part of them now. I am growing inside every one of them.” The time for heroes, it seems, is over.

Rory Mullarkey’s play is hugely ambitious and often very funny, and well served by Lyndsey Turner’s inventive and whole-hearted production, itself greatly enhanced by the designs of Rae Smith. A whole village appears on the rotating stage of the Olivier, with distant exterior views replaced by a kitchen interior, itself deftly updated with each succeeding age.

In the title role, John Heffernan is an endearing George, first ennobled and then made a saint, alternating between self-doubt and bombast as he returns like Peter Pan to the site of his former victories. As George struggles to cope with the changing times, Heffernan is able to add some layers of complexity to the role, and he makes a sympathetic focus for the piece. Opposite him as the Dragon is Julian Bleach, adding a level of real evil to a character who, at least in the opening section, is remarkably reminiscent of a pantomime villain with clawed hands and cape. Bleach is too good an actor to settle for simplistic villainy however, and this is a layered and mannered portrayal which adds immensely to the effectiveness of the narrative.

Amaka Okafor works hard as George’s love interest, Elsa, but the audience are unsure of her role since she is not as familiar to us as the main protagonists in the legend. As her father, Gawn Grainger provides a masterclass in character acting, presenting us with different versions of Charles across the three time periods, the subtle differences in these portrayals building to create a wholly believable person.

There is a large part for a young actor, Reuel Guzman on Press Night, and Jeff Rawle’s Brewer and Joe Caffrey’s Smith also managed well the mutations of their characters. As the Dragon’s henchman, Richard Goulding was impressive, especially in the prison scenes. The rest of the large cast play multiple roles and for the most part effectively, but few are given enough material to make an individual impression; although Luke Brady is a powerful Miller’s Son – a role which I think was meant to be commenting upon the action or suggesting an alternative, although this seemed unclear… We are presumably meant to sympathise with George and his plea for a return to the past, with villages seen as preferable to towns and cities, fields to be preferred to factories and automation. The almost Shakespearean violence towards the end of the play seemed less coherent than the first half and the ending left many audience members puzzled.

A wildly ambitious new play then, using all the resources of the Olivier and, even though for me it did not totally gel, this is exactly the kind of work the NT should be attempting. The interval chat was correct of course – rather predictably the Dragon is now in all of us and in particular in our voting and behaviour, and we can overcome him only with difficulty. The rather abrupt ending, perhaps a result of cuts since the running time was less than stated in the programme, led to some discussion among audience members, with one of the couple next to me seeing it as optimistic and her partner as quite the reverse. If the play continues to attract a younger audience and to give them something to argue about, then it is has achieved much of what a National Theatre should be about.

Company of Saint George and the Dragon. Photo: Johan Persson

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