Note: This is a review of the matinee performance on Saturday 14th October 2017.
After the too brief glory of Follies, the run of flops in the Olivier resumes with this latest National new commission. This show appears to be yet another attempt by the venue to comment on the state of the nation. The result is two hours and 45 minutes of often painful tedium.
Rory Mullarkey's play starts from the premise that St George reappears age after age to slay the dragon which mutates into different guises. We start in pre-industrial England, move forward to a country in the grip of the industrial revolution and finish up in present day London. The cyclical approach is unfortunately reminiscent of Common's repetitions and problematic, albeit in different ways. Firstly, the play asserts that only a year passes between each encounter but there is really no sign that anybody ages at all in that year. Secondly, the village still seems to be inhabited on each occasion by exactly the same people, but there is almost nothing in the way of individual character or relationship development. This is compounded by the cliched nature of many of the characters – the fact that nearly all of them are denied a proper name and referred to instead by trade both indicates and exacerbates this (crier, butcher, healer etc. - as with Eggy Tom in Common I despair that it seems to have occurred to nobody in the National's commissioning process that there was any problem with this). Then there's the shallow political commentary which Mullarkey will insist on bolting on to this rickety structure – a tiresome anti-capitalist screed in the second cycle, wearily familiar remarks about the breakdown of communities in the third, and general unexplored assertions that there was, at some point in the past, a better, possibly golden, age. The net effect of all this is to bore. Apart from one or two brief sparks in the second half the play basically committed my cardinal sin of failing to make me care about anybody on stage, or to make me really believe in any of the relationships being represented.
Not much can be said for Lyndsey Turner's direction or Rae Smith's set. It reaches a nadir in the first fight with the dragon – this feels like it takes an eternity to arrive and then we're forced to listen to laboured description from the chorus with the only visual effects being two dragon heads flown down on wires to explode in either corner of the Olivier stage – it's simply inadequate. Otherwise, the cast wander about around little models of houses-cum-skyscrapers rarely finding punch in movement or physical interaction. I found myself imagining wistfully what a team led by the great Marianne Elliott might have done. Oh, and there are some occasional lacklustre musical numbers by Grant Olding, the main effect of which I fear is to further slow the already leaden pace.
None of the performers manage to sufficiently transcend the script. John Heffernan's George, Amaka Okafor's Elsa and Richard Goulding's Henry occasionally contrive to find emotion – in Act 2 Okafor/Goulding have one scene which really rings emotionally true but can go little distance because the supporting structure isn't there. The rest provide another of the Norris National's regionally and racially mixed choruses which are admirable in intention but which have on too many occasions from where I've been sitting failed to catch life in execution.
Of course Nicholas Hytner commissioned flops, but the volume of failed new commissions under Norris has been far higher. In particular, I would strongly advise Norris to stop trying to commission a great state of the nation play, it is doing his venue's reputation no favours at all. In the meantime I'm afraid this is another National production to avoid. Queue for Follies returns instead.