I saw this marketing poster for Saint George and the Dragon whilst I was idly looking at shows coming up in the next National Theatre season and it really tickled my fancy. The out of place, out of era, aforementioned Saint, glumly tucking into a full English at some greasy spoon. Hardly the stuff of legends, is it? But then as George says in the play, he genuinely is a legend.
There are loads of excellent ideas in Rory Mullarkey’s play which has just ended its run at the Olivier, but, to be honest, I’d be surprised if it turned up anywhere else again in the future. In ancient days, when Chaucerian meter was all the rage, a Knyghte y-clept George found himself wandering through the green pastures of Merrie England (or was that a couple of hundred years later) and chanced upon an old man and his daughter, both verray parfit villagers forsooth. We meet the other villagers: Crier, Miller, Smith, Butcher, Healer, Driver, Brewer…. can you guess what services each provided the community? Of course, that’s where our surnames come from. So I have no idea why Mr Mullarkey has called the old man Charles and his daughter Elsa. Presumably his other kids Dave and Wayne were at some crusade or other.
Elsa is about to be eaten alive by the local ruler, a Dragon (that’s King Dragon to you) so Charles pleads with George to challenge the Dragon to save his daughter’s life. Unfortunately, George hadn’t had much luck with Dragons recently and refused (most ungallantly) Charles’ beseeching to fight the Dragon to save his daughter. But then George looked in Elsa’s eyes and Bingo! It was love at first joust. George fights the Dragon, and, blow me down with a fire-throwing breath, he defeats him. But just as he’s about to enjoy his well deserved courtly nuptuals, he hears the call of the Brotherhood, and he’s off to fight another quest, leaving Elsa to darn her medieval mittens for centuries to come.
I don’t think it matters that I’m telling you the plot, because of the reason I mention in the first sentence of my second paragraph. George comes back in Victorian times, and basically the same thing happens again; then he comes back in today’s era… and basically the same thing happens again. Repetitive? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. There’s the nugget of a very clever play in here. The nation needs a knight in shining armour to come and rescue us from the mess we’ve got ourselves into; a character that represents true England – its nobility, its bravery, its courtliness, its generosity of spirit. Against him, the Dragon, who vows to continue his war against George in more subtle, subconscious ways in the future, affecting the minds of the people, encouraging evil and ignobility; selfishness and weakness. You might say the play sticks two fingers up at Brexiteers; I couldn’t possibly comment. At the end of the play George exhorts the townsfolk to join him returning back to the good old days, but, of course, no one wants to go back in time. This is modern England, a land of smartphones and skyscrapers, of Megabowls and watching England lose at football in the pub. You cannot go back.
Nice idea. Unfortunately, it’s a very wordy, overlong, and lumpy play. It starts with George’s sub-Anglo-Saxon introduction and, I kid you not, Mrs Chrisparkle had nodded off for forty winks and woken up again before he had finished his opening monologue. There are some excellent moments of comedy, created by the incongruous juxtaposition of the ancient with the modern – rather like that marketing photo on the programme. There’s a very enjoyable scene in the second act where George, who has no clue what football is, finds himself getting absolutely plastered watching an International England match in the pub, and it’s genuinely very funny. George blames England’s poor performance on the fact that the supporters have lost sight of the fact that we are world beaters. Just have belief, and we will win the day. Good luck with that, George.
There are some very splendid actors involved in this production who really did put in an awful lot of fine effort. John Heffernan brought great virtue to the role of George, with some lovely comic timing and excellent stage presence. I’d really like to see him in something good. Julian Bleach’s characterisation of the Dragon was very amusing, especially in the first scene as a slimy pantomime villain. Brilliant actors with CV’s as long as your arm, like Gawn Grainger and Jeff Rawle, breathe as much life into the play as possible. And there are some excellent special effects – I loved how the Dragon set fire to his servant Henry’s scroll of Terms and Conditions; although the setting up for the descent of the fiery Dragon’s heads onto the stage, using two wires that slowly came into view, was cumbersome and made the whole thing look very ham-fisted.
At 2 hours 50 minutes it has some very long longueurs. My solution – omit a lot of the opening exposition and completely cut out the whole Victorian era episode. It adds nothing to the story and Mr. Mullarkey would still make his patriotic point only far more succinctly. You could probably bring it in at about 2 hours then and it wouldn’t feel anything like as hard going. Overall, it wasn’t too bad; but it wasn’t good either. Faint praise indeed. Can’t win them all!
Production photos by Johan Persson