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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Saint George And The Dragon
Olivier Theatre  Autumn 2017

The trick of filtering an old tale through modern sensibilities is usually employed for comic purposes, either parodying the simple values of the original or using them to expose the failings of today. Playwright Rory Mullarkey tries a little bit of both, but mainly wants to conduct a serious exploration into the nature of good and evil. 

The result in this overblown, overlong (almost 3 hours) and strikingly prosaic production by director Lindsey Turner, is too often too lifeless and unrewarding. 

The play opens promisingly in medieval times as George (John Heffernan) introduces himself wryly as a failed hero, defeated by his first dragon and de-knighted in shame. He comes upon a village terrorised by its resident fire-breather, meets the lovely damsel who is to be today's designated sacrifice, and is inspired by love. 

He actually defeats the monster, in a battle described by those onstage as happening behind us, and is then called away on further knightly quests before he can get the girl. 

He returns after a year to find that, in the magical time scheme of fables, the Industrial Revolution has happened, and the villagers are newly enslaved by the dragon, now resurrected in the form of Capitalism. 

You can see where this is going. Another, somewhat confusedly symbolic dragon fight, another departure, another return, this time to our modern day, and the spiritual dragons of disaffection, impotent grumbling and losing football teams. 

Can George conquer once again, or has the age of heroic battles between good and evil passed forever?

Unfortunately, by the time that question is raised, you'll have difficulty caring, because it's all been an intellectual construct with far too little to engage your feelings or even your hunger for some good storytelling. 

Neither playwright Mullarkey, director Turner nor actor Heffernan is able to find an interesting and sympathetic character in George, leaving Heffernan to wander between stalwart hero and dimwitted hunk, too often ending up as personality-less block of wood. 

To save on special effects, Mullarkey has the dragon choose to take human form most of the time, and Julian Bleach plays him in full high-camp moustachio-twirling silent film villain mode..And as a result, in a tradition going at least as far back as Milton, the bad guy is far more theatrically alive and far more attractive than the hero. 

Richard Goulding, playing the assistant baddie who repents and tries to make up for his sins, is given more of a character to play than Heffernan, so that at moments the play's centre and your interest shift to him. 

Amaka Okafor has too little to do as the maiden for the character to develop any reality, but Gawn Granger manages to invest the most sympathetic of the villagers with some warmth and depth. 

This is a failure of direction even more than of writing. A fable like this, even (or especially) one with ambitions to be meaningful, requires the lightest of touches, to create and sustain the fairytale atmosphere and treat the material with both humour and respect. 

Lindsey Turner's hand is far too heavy, and any failings of the actors are those of not having been sufficiently inspired or guided by their director. 

Saint George And The Dragon may have looked promising on paper, and in other hands it might have worked better. But it just never comes to life here.

Gerald Berkowitz

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