Review: Saint George and the Dragon, National Theatre

“You hunt them where they live”

There’s something interesting about a community that can simultaneously urge the need to talk constructively about failure and also gloat endlessly about the its possibility. Where the National Theatre is concerned, the stakes feel considerably heightened and following a summer that contained the divisive Salomé and Common, sadly you could almost feel the knives being sharpened in advance for Saint George and the Dragon.
Two contrasting viewpoints from two contrasting people, to be sure, but you wonder how open-minded people are being, particularly when the start to this press night was delayed by 30 minutes or so adding fuel to certain people’s fire. But all this dancing around is doing, is delaying the inevitable, in that I found Rory Mullarkey’s new play really quite tough-going and had it not been for an effortful performance from John Heffernan keeping it afloat from the front, it would have been worse.

The Olivier is an unforgiving space and seems to provoke a certain kind of writing that longs to be suitably epic. But whether it is the writers being over-awed or the commissioning process not being rigorous enough, the new writing being showcased here isn’t quite hitting the mark. Mullarkey uses the legendary figure of St George to explore English life and its people, how it and they have changed from medieval history to current Brexited times.
This he does by splitting his play into three but populating them with the same people. So Heffernan’s George is first seen as a weary knight who saves the woman he loves from a dragonish baron, inspiring the villagers as he frees them all. He’s called away and upon his return, it is now the Industrial Revolution and the dragon has returned in the form of an invasive capitalism. Heroics are performed once again but on the next return to the modern day, the dragon has seeped into the bones of society itself.
There’s plenty of good ideas in here but none of them really come to fruition in the way that is needed in Lyndsey Turner’s production. The pace sags too often during an overlong running time and there’s nowhere near enough humour. And for all the delicious bit of design from Rae Smith (the first dragon battle is entertainingly done), the amusing notion of how the cross of St George came about and Julian Bleach giving his ripest of villains as the mutating dragon, it’s a play that needs the patience of a saint.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Johan Persson
Booking until 2nd December

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