John Heffernan as St. George. Image by Johan Persson
British theatre is engaged in an urgent search for post-referendum state of the nation writing and, to its credit, the National Theatre is at the forefront. Rufus Norris’ 2017 season has proved highly controversial, with Michael Billington calling the relative absence of classics ‘a staggering dereliction of duty‘. While his piece is a serious over-reaction, it does reflects the unusual risk involved in staging experimental new plays in the vast Olivier auditorium. This is as much a financial as an artistic tightrope. Follies has been a huge success, but is also surely one of the NT’s most expensive shows, while DC Moore’s Common was a similarly risky new piece. With Rory Mullarkey’s St. George and the Dragon the most surprisingly choice for the Olivier yet, we must hope the NT’s finance department is on top of the situation. In the meantime, Mullarkey has written a larky piece of extended allegory that is both enjoyable and frustrating. It seems to have expanded to fill the space, becoming both surprisingly epic and unnecessarily long.
John Heffernan plays St. George in three different time periods. He shows up as a greenhorn knight in a medieval English village, slaying the enslaving dragon (Julian Bleach, having a great time) and bringing peace and liberty. Then he’s off to fight more dragons and, returning after only a year, finds time has slipped to the industrial revolution and the dragon is not only back but is now running the mills. Finally, after another absence he comes back to modern Britain where, the plays claims, the dragon is within us all and everything is much worse than it was the Middle Ages.
This pretty trite political thesis is the play’s main weakness. However, there are strengths too. The whole show is essentially a pantomime, inhabited by types – the maiden, the father, the miller, the cryer, the healer etc. – who play the same roles in each era. It has an afternoon television atmosphere, silly and enjoyable, but a neat line in clever staging. In fact Rae Smith’s set is a triumph – a tablecloth countryside dotted with model village buildings that spreads over the entire Olivier stage and back wall, and grow as time moves on. Lyndsey Turner’s production marshals the cast very to fill the space very effectively, and occupies the cavernous space overhead with amusingly home-made sky battles between knight and dragon.
John Heffernan is a perfect naive crusader, increasingly out of time and unable to keep up with 21st century drinking culture. Supporting characters, especially Gawn Grainger as the father and Amaka Okafor as Elsa, always about to be eaten by the dragon in one way or another, are strong. The writing is often funny, particularly when questioning the stereotypes of the St. George myth through the familiar out-of-time comic scenario. However, despite its appeal Mullarkey’s play is not nearly focused enough. It sets a leisurely pace but, in the end, cannot back up its allegorical approach with any real cultural and political insight. Nevertheless, there is no doubt we need as much state-of-the-nation drama as we can get in these confusing times. The National Theatre is the right place to see it – Norris needs to continue his search.