Monday, November 13, 2017


The National Theatre at the Olivier

Rory Mullarkey’s new play is an enjoyably old-fashioned affair. And not only the opening scene [it’s really a three-act play] which is done in cod-Chaucerian verse. The last third, after the interval, is set in the present day, but agreeably free of expletives.
It’s an ambitious exploration of the legend of St George, and the cross which was his symbol but now has a multitude of meanings.
He comes home to an England he remembers as an Eden, a perfect isle. “A Knight there was ...” the tale begins, as he descends through the stalls, a messianic figure in a flowing robe and his “sunrise russet” locks. But he finds England much changed, darker, more dismal, ruled by a traditional dragon.
Our hero, a naive, likeable dragon-slayer, with moments of self-doubt, moments of epic bombast, is engagingly played by John Heffernan, bringing out the quiet humour of the writing. His Dragon, very much a pantomime villain, at least in his first incarnation, is done with evident relish by Julian Beach.
We are quickly introduced to the villagers, medieval types named for their trades. As with Blackadder, they crop up again in the second part, set in the Industrial Revolution, with the Dragon in a giant capitalist top hat. And again in the 21st century, when tower blocks have obliterated the town which replaced the village.
Many fine performances, from Gawn Granger as the old man, Jason Barnett as the Crier [“Oyez...”], Joe Caffrey as Smith, Jeff Rawle as Brewer the inn-keeper. The Dragon’s henchman, or aide-de-camp, a complex character, key to the story’s development, is Richard Goulding. And the Saint’s love interest – the old man’s daughter – is given a memorable performance by Amaka Okafor. And the boy, another key character, was confidently played, when I saw it, by Reuel Guzman.
Lyndsey Turner pulls out all the stops to do justice to the epic scale of the story. The aerial battle with the triple-headed dragon is a powerful blend of narration, reaction and old-fashioned special effects as the heads crash and burn in a most spectacular fashion. Rae Smith’s design – a Ravilious landscape, with a model village/town/city built on it, and a kitchen for each era – is perfect for the piece, which seems very much at home in the spacious Olivier.
We are left to ponder what the play is about. The dragon, by the end, is no longer a foe to be challenged, but the enemy within each one of us. The England that has appropriated the noble flag is a selfish, soul-less place, hen parties and football in the pub. Elsa, now a teacher, finds herself crying on the bus.
The playwright deliberately does not set it in England, though it’s a very close match - “an island much like our own”. It’s not a state-of-the-nation play, though the programme reflects on our national identity, on heroes [and villains] and our need for stories. And this is a fairy tale, a myth – as George, completely adrift in the present day, says,“I am a legend.”
It would be unkind to reveal the ending, but it is sufficiently ambiguous to allow for optimism or despair as we wonder whether the dragon can ever be defeated.

Photograph: Johan Persson

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