Oh no, not again. Didn’t we just do all this, like, a few months ago? Didn’t we sit through the interminably boring, bizarrely staged, epically sprawling, state-of-the-nation allegory-play already this year? Do we really have to do it again?
Well, RuNo thinks we do. The Nash didn’t get it right first time round with DC Moore’s catastrophic Common, so they’ve left it a few weeks before giving it another crack with Rory Mullarkey’s Saint George and the Dragon. And yep, it’s another slow-motion car-crash of a show that provokes the same bemused rack of incredulous questions. How did this get anywhere near the National’s main stage? Did anyone read this before deciding to programme it? And how, given that Norris is apparently committed to sustaining his theatre without relying on commercial transfers, is sticking a big, fat dud that’s going to play to half-houses in his biggest auditorium going to help?
Okay, conceptually, Saint G and the D sounds okay. Okay if you’re a GCSE drama student with fascist, nationalistic tendencies that is. It’s essentially an attempt to examine our notion of “English identity” down the ages, pitching the story of our patron saint into three eras of history. So first, Georgie-boy turns up in Ye Olde England to slay an actual dragon that actually breathes fire and actually terrifies the nation. Then the G-man returns at the height of the industrial revolution to deal with a dragon that’s no longer a real dragon, but is some hazy, Monopoly-man spirit of nascent industrial capitalism that subdues the population by forcing it to work for nothing down pits and up at mills.
Then, in the third and final act, he wanders back into contemporary Blighty – a world of pub fights, overflowing wheelie bins, and neon skyscrapers – to find that the dragon has morphed into a kind of insidious, omniprescent
To be fair, it is faintly amusing at times. Firstly when John Heffernan’s initially timid George – imagine a kinder, more huggable, less cunty Jacob Rees-Mogg – blusters his way into a fight with a three-headed, fire-breathing dragon, then when he returns to the present day, mane flowing, armour glinting, only to be confronted with microwaves and MegaBowls. But it’s not consistently funny enough to suggest Mullarkey was aiming straight at comedy. Instead, he’s produced some weird, hybrid mash-up of patriotic pantomime and ranting, anti-money propaganda, penned entirely – like Common – in mangled Chaucer revival dialogue.
It’s truly, truly strange. I pity the cast, who have to steer an impossible course between Henry V, Monty Python’s Holy Grail, and a Michael Moore documentary. The majority drown, lumped with roles as deep and sophisticated as their title: Butcher, Miller, Crier, Brewer, etc. The only saving graces are Heffernan, who gets most of the funny lines and dives straight into this miasmic mess with a very English (hey!) bravado, and Julian Bleach, who invests his shape-shifting dragon with a camp, Captain Hook creepiness.
And Lyndsey Turner’s staging is not good at all, even after we acknowledge that the Olivier is pretty much THE WORST THEATRE IN THE WORLD. No, sir. Rae Smith’s set is basically an enormous, sloping map that veers sharply upwards towards the rear of the stage, and is dotted with flimsy, cardboard cut-out buildings. It actually looks like the set-builder for an amateur panto has been given a blank cheque, but all he can come up with is the same, but bigger. And it’s splashed with projections, too, the sort of haphazard video slop you get in those low-budget, ’90s history documentaries your teacher used to wheel out on VHS when they had a hangover.
Argh, it’s just such an awful mess. Such an untidy, unpolished piece of writing, such a lamentably awkward staging – the bit when George kills the actual dragon of old is so ludicrously lo-fi it’s almost laughable – and such an enormous chore to sit through. It’s actually staggering that something like this was scheduled so soon after something like Common. The bloke next to me had his head in his hands for the entire second half. He might’ve fallen asleep, or died, to be fair – I wanted to – but still, Follies aside, the Rufus Norris regime is really floundering in the Olivier right now.
Saint George and the Dragon is on at the National Theatre until 2 December 2017. Click here for more details.