Apocryphal folklore, hero worship and our swollen national psyche – the scope of Rory Mullarkey’s allegorical play, St George and the Dragon, is hugely ambitious.
We begin with George (the brilliant John Heffernan) striding graciously onstage and proclaiming himself in chivalric, Chaucerian terms: ‘A knight there was and that a worthy man’ – a note of pious pomp delightfully harmonised with earnest naivety. He’s no national hero at present, but he will be. Over several centuries (and almost three hours) George makes it his quest to slay the regenerating dragon scorching England’s land and people since feudal times, throughout the industrial epoch, and still today. And that ‘dragon’, comrades, is capitalism.
Played with slithery pantomime-villain camp by Julian Bleach, the money-hoarding fiend inhabits various guises: from baleful landlord, to exploitative factory owner, and finally as the jaded, mean, unfeeling, apathetic spirit of despair within modern society. Almost as soon as George vanquishes the beast, it returns, it’s talons more sharply fixed in people’s bodies and minds.
The time-hopping concept offers plenty of laughs and it is as a comedy that St George and the Dragon works best. The play’s zany humour is complemented by Rae Smith’s quirky stage design, where animated medieval-manuscript-style-illustrations combine with a miniature town set that transforms from village hovels into soulless skyscrapers via an industrial smog.
However as a meaningful exploration of prescient themes, such as dislocated national identity and patriotic longing for an idyllic past that never really existed, St George and the Dragon is all puff and no fire. Allegories are at times too blatant, at others too slippery. There are superfluous scenes, like an over-long narration of George’s first offstage battle, that cast the play as a child-friendly adventure fable when it is billed as a 13+ ‘folk tale for an uneasy nation’.
And although Mullarkey’s diagnosis of this longstanding social unease is bang on, the way he expresses it often comes across as heavy-handed to the point of being patronising. The spectre of Brexit looms heavily over the play, as it does across this green and pleasant land, but Mullarkey is content merely pointing out deep-rooted divisions without offering any solutions other than ones ridiculous or bleak. Nor does he make any reference to George’s dubiously concealed Syrian heritage.
A good allegory condenses a complex story into a simpler, understandable form and this is achieved in some succinct, entertaining scenes. The best is an assassination of English character set in a modern pub during another inevitably tragic World Cup quarter final – George indignant at his fellow compatriot’s slander of the eleven young lions bearing his red cross. Sadly the resulting brawl marks the start of the play’s messy, forced and melodramatic finale.
There is perhaps a depressing truth in one character’s fatalistic resignation to a system that is ultimately unfair and oppressive: ‘We lobby, we sign petitions, we protest, we vote – what more can we do?’ But if Mullarkey truly believes this, why is a play that sets out to be a 21st century folk epic not also ambitious enough to be an incendiary clamour for change?