Saint George and the Dragon at the National Theatre: A fairytale for adults that's not half as clever as it thinks it is

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What a time to stage a proper state-of-the-nation play. With record inequality, rising nationalism and the prospect of limping from the EU without so much as a trade deal, this is the perfect time to mull over exactly what it means to be British. And for a while, Rory Mullarkey’s new play looks like it might successfully hold a mirror to contemporary England, teeing up a neat, savage allegory, before futzing it all up in the final act.

Loosely inspired by Evgeny Schwartz’s 1943 play The Dragon, a biting satire of the Stalinist Soviet Union, the action is transposed to a feudal English village, where a fair maid is about to be gobbled up by a tyrannical dragon. Thankfully a dashing, naive knight called George turns up, slaying the beast in a spectacular battle involving pyrotechnics and giant serpents soaring overhead. Hurrah!

George then leaves town to conquer more distant dragons, returning a year later to find the village transformed into an industrial city, complete with belching chimneys and capitalists in tall hats. This time the dragon is a more insidious force, not just a king, but an entire economic system. Oh no! You can see where this is going: eventually George – still clad in his shining armour – rocks up in modern London, now thoroughly out-dated, still attempting to rouse the locals with his age-old rhetoric about England being the greatest nation on earth. But the dragon is now everywhere, inside us all. How do you slay the system? How do you kill The Man?

It’s essentially a fairytale for adults, all delivered in a deliberately childlike, almost panto-ish way. The opening scenes bring to mind 90s kids’ show Maid Marion and Her Merry Men, with John Heffernan making for a charming lead as the indefatigable George.

It’s as blunt as a spoon, but it works well enough until the final act, when the writing becomes unforgivably sloppy and the message lost in a flood of sentimentality. Mullarkey wants to represent the working classes, but seems to have little idea of what these creatures might actually be like. There’s a scene in which people are watching a football match, for instance, which seems to have been written by someone who’s never actually seen one.

Over-long and increasingly sanctimonious, it all sags terribly by the end. And while its heart is in the right place, it only preaches to the converted, offering little insight into the real-life dragons we currently find ourselves battling.