St George and The Dragon is both a missed opportunity, as well as a structural, tonal and thematic mess. One of many new autumn plays at the National Theatre, playwright Rory Mullarkey’s take on England’s famous folk legend about the knight St George who slew the dragon, rescued the fair maiden and saved a village in the process is lost amongst an array of admittedly good ideas. Some of the writing wouldn’t look out of place on a miniseries for Channel 4. Yet its theatrical presentation is at odds, half the time I couldn’t make out whether it wanted to properly tell the folk-tale, use the tale to parallel the division of England in modern times or go for “Highlander-esque” hijinks. The story begins with the titular knight (John Heffernan making the best of his painfully vanilla role) enlisting the help of a village to slay the dragon and rescue his love interest Elsa from being sacrificed. Once everything is said and done, he is called away by the Brotherhood while imploring the village to build upon their freedom and make England a better place. The general thrust of the play involves the village constantly growing and thriving, but events repeat themselves causing the dragon to return in different forms. From an anthropomorphic beast, to a stingy Victorian land owner and finally something more internal to reflect the damaged post-Brexit times.
Fish out of Water stories are common in storytelling and I don’t necessarily have a problem unless done poorly. In the play’s case what it was trying to illustrate in a meta-theatrical way was how out of place George’s ideals are slowly becoming with the economic growth of England and the historic societal shifts in the general British public. If it wasn’t for the fact that these sociopolitical connotations of the play have latched onto something as fantastical and chivalrous as St George and the Dragon we would be talking about an entirely different British play. What irks me the most is why they didn’t just tell the general story? With two acclaimed people in theatre such as director Lyndsey Turner (Hamlet) and production designer Rae Smith (War Horse, Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci, Girl From The North Country) working behind the scenes on the production you would think this would be up to National Theatre standards.
Lyndsey Turner’s directing while competent doesn’t salvage the material and Rae Smith currently one of the best working designers in modern theatre delivered a design that felt sixth-form and unfinished. Normally she creates some of the most outstanding sets imaginable. Her design contributions for Sir David McVicar’s production of Richard Wagner’s The Ring Cycle for Opera National du Rhin in Strasbourg won the Grand Prix for Outstanding Achievement in Opera in 2011. The rest of the cast do fine with their roles, but you have to wonder if the material had been better written they could have been an exceptional bunch. This isn’t one of the worst productions in London I’ve seen this year, that honour goes to the Apollo’s recent production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But however the play is an overall disappointment, no energy, no sense of wonder and certainly no originality. A big waste of creative and theatrical potential.
St George and the Dragon runs at National Theatre until 2 December