Saint George and the Dragon review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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Rory Mullarkey’s eccentric National Theatre debut is a fun, if frustrating romp

This year, for some reason, the National Theatre’s giant Olivier stage has become the weirdest new writing theatre in London.

This summer it ran Yaël Farber’s spectacular, misguided ‘Salomé’ in rep with DC Moore’s awesomely incomprehensible ‘Common’. And though it has a good ol’ fashioned hit on its hands at the moment with its jaw-dropping revival of Sondheim’s ‘Follies’, matters have been ‘complicated’ with the programming of Rory Mullarkey’s eccentric ‘Saint George and the Dragon’.

It reminds me a lot of the sort of the low-budget teatime period comedy dramas that were on TV during my childhood: think ‘Maid Marion and Her Merry Men’ but with better jokes and less comprehensible motivation.

Essentially, Lyndsey Turner’s genuinely very enjoyable production feels like three episodes, each of which features John Heffernan’s preening, unworldly Saint George returning to his hometown in order to slay Julian Bleach’s campy Dragon. George is away for a year at a time between vanquishings, but in each absence the world surges into the future, at his behest: the first part is set in medieval times, the second in the industrial revolution, the third in the present.

I enjoyed it, because it’s fun: a daft ‘Blackadder’-ish genre pastiche blessed by a beautiful chocolate box set from Rae Smith and a stupendously committed performance from a wig-wearing Heffernan (perhaps the most underappreciated actor of his generation, though you can possibly see why with odd projects like this).

It’s clear that ‘Saint George’ is intended as some comment on Englishness, but for much of the play this is relatively oblique, and the schlocky adventure format takes precedence. In part one the dragon appears to represent feudalism; in part two, the extreme capitalism of the workhouse era, both overcome by – I suppose – the English spirit.

In the third part, George hits choppier waters: the dragon seems to have become a meanness of spirit that has wormed its way into the English. (I’m not saying the dragon is Brexit. But it’s probably Brexit-adjacent).

George can no longer simply lop its head off. Maybe he shouldn’t: maybe George now represents a glorious past that needs to be let go; maybe Mullarkey is saying the English are all part-George, part-dragon. I don’t know, really: there is some very funny stuff about the English character – particularly in a sequence set in a pub during an England game – but the play’s message feels malleable to the point of vagueness, in need of a bit of dramaturgical dragon-slaying.

Ultimately ‘Saint George and the Dragon’ is a fairly preposterous play that I enjoyed quite a lot, albeit one that made me glad – not for the first time – that I have another nationality to fall back on.


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