Review: Saint George and the Dragon, National Theatre ‘A Pantomime for White Englanders’

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Right… What the hell was going on here then, eh?

When this new play from Rory Mullarkey was announced by the NT, it was greeted with indifference, little more than a shrug. But come the interval on Press Night, the reaction was one of utter bemusement across the Olivier auditorium. What on earth were we watching??

Well, good question, because though it is possible to untangle the clunky metaphors to decipher what exactly this play was getting at, I’m still no closer to working out exactly why it was inflicted upon us.

Basically, Saint George and the Dragon is a pantomime for adults. A little early in the season, you might say, given that we’re only in October but that is the perfect description for this show. Its writing is unsubtle, its metaphors clunky (and not entirely coherent), its characters two-dimensional, and it is all played out tongue-in-cheek to farcical levels.

We start off in Ye Olde England. You can tell that as we’re in some kind of Legoland-esque miniature village, the folks (who tower over their homes) are all wearing peasant garb, everyone’s talking in that Ye Olde dialect and we have a knight returning from battles overseas wandering in our midst.

Yet, alas, said knight cannot hang up his trusty lance and put his feet up as a pretty maiden is due to be sacrificed to the dragon that terrorises the villagers and rules them like a tyrant. Cue entrance of said dragon, played with campish relish by Julian Bleach.

The dragon slithers out his cave – I’m not joking, Julian actually did slither across the Olivier stage – to confront his foe. It was all so exaggerated and theatrical that, I swear, we were a hair’s breadth away from, “He’s behind you!” After exchanging a few comedic barbs, our hero and villain prepare for battle – only, in this instance, George’s trusty steed has been replaced with a flying carpet. No, seriously.

George and the dragon take to the air for the fight. Not that we see them. Instead, the cast of peasants underneath point up into the rafters narrating the battle and giant paper-mache dragon heads tumble down along zip wire to crash with little more than a whimper onto the stage… If Director Lyndsey Turner was going for an am dram feel to proceedings, she succeeded admirably.

Sadly, this is a three act play not a one act one so, as soon as the mythical dragon had lost his head – the folk have overturned feudalism, you see – we are shuttled forth into the Industrial Revolution. How can we tell? Because the stage transforms itself in what has all the hallmarks of a sixth form college attempting to recreate Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony at the 2012 Olympics: the green fields of yore are ripped up, cardboard chimneys emerge, and the cast are now all factory workers, exploited and sick.

And the Dragon is still alive! Oh goody! What is the metaphor here, we wonder? Well, it’s not hard to guess as, this time, the Dragon slithers out of the Bank of England. Subtlety be gone, I tell you! Because this is a METAPHOR, people! I felt like shouting, ‘I know, I know! Please, God, stop hitting us over the head with it. I hate bankers too! Gordon Gekko was wrong – greed is not good!’

Only this is where it all starts to derail metaphor-wise because, obvs, George kills the dragon and frees the English again from the yoke of servitude. Only, forgive me, but I don’t actually remember the bit in our history where capitalism and the capitalist model was destroyed. Feudalism, yes; capitalism, no.

And then there’s the tricky plot-hole of, well, if greed is the metaphor, then that is within us. The dragon is within us, everybody!! So, umm, what exactly did George kill off?

By this stage, the play was in trouble – and not just with its metaphors. The writing was tying itself in knots trying to sustain a pantomime feel whilst also trying to engage us with big issues. Serious dialogue didn’t land, the slapstick humour was getting tiresome, and there were tell-tale signs of heavy editing with scenes being skipped through with increasing pace, no emotional weight from any character arcs being allowed to develop… And we were only at the interval.

It was noted that more than a few didn’t return for the second half and it was understandable why: it was patently obvious where we were heading and, as expected, the final act starts with the modern London skyline folding up from the Olivier stage and the cast emerging this time in sportswear and hi-vis jackets.

The denouement, the reckoning, is set in the present day, only this show just dies in the second half. Its energy is spent, it has nothing new to say – its final act following the template set out in the previous two. It limps across the line as we in the audience just will it all to end.

So, what was this all for? What is this about? Well, it’s national identity. I think. It is trying to be an analysis of the myth of England and Englishness. In each of these scenes, Englanders looked to George, held on to him as that dream of the perfect Little England, as their little piece of heaven on earth. Only he is a myth; he isn’t real. Just as the ideal of England as a peaceful nation with rolling meadows and contented lives is also fantastical. It never existed, it never will. Because we are our own dragons.

I think that was it, only it all gets tangled up as it seems to be this shared dream of England that brings the Englanders in this play together to defeat the dragon. Only, arguably, in this post-Brexit landscape, the point is the opposite – it is the fantasy of Englishness that has cleaved this country apart.

But I have a bigger problem with this play.

If we are to understand that this production is all Brexit-adjacent, and that it is the myth of England and Englishness that has compelled 52% of the electorate to drive the country off the cliff, then race and xenophobia are marked and worrying absentees in this play.

Whiteness is a key element to the myth of Little England that many hold on to. This isn’t controversial – ‘othering’ was a significant factor in the Brexit vote, whether it be Europeans or those from further afield. But, beyond that, the wave of hate crimes that came in the wake of the referendum was evidence that this myth, for White Englanders, includes a rock-hard perception of this country being for White people only. And to ignore that in this play is controversial. It wasn’t touched upon once in this show, this dream many have for England as a Whites-only nation, let alone interrogated head on.

This is a pantomime play for White England. Including a handful of POC in the large cast and throwing in a single on-the-nose piece of dialogue about England enslaving people overseas does not address this. The myth the play looks to skewer includes a perception about skin colour within these borders too, and I sense that the omission may have even been due to lack of awareness, which only serves to emphasise the Whiteness in the creatives here also.

So, look, Saint George and the Dragon isn’t just odd and disappointing, it’s problematic too. Coming so quickly off the back of Common and Salome, and for this to be another Brexit play so soon after the awful My Country, it is only fair to question the aim and objectives of the new administration, as well as their quality control. What is Rufus Norris trying to achieve? What are his central artistic intentions?

Look, I’m not saying this production is terrible. I mean, it is, but rather I’m not saying the first half is unendurable – it is genuinely funny in places in that pantomime farcical way; there’s a great visual joke on the origin of St George’s cross, for one. And John Heffernan, god bless him, gives it everything. He’s terrific as the naïve hero played with wide-eyed wonder and gallant verve, and Julian Bleach is the perfect boo-hiss villain. But I fundamentally could not work out why this show was programmed. What was the point? What were we supposed to be learning?

And as for the NT’s coffers, well, thank God for Follies and Network.

National Theatre, London, to December 2, 2017
All production images by Johan Persson.

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