Writer: Yevgeny Schwartz
Adapted by: Daniel Goldman
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Dragons have a pretty bad reputation; they breath fire, eat damsels and terrorise villagers. All in all, they are the baddies of fairy tales justly defeated by the brave and valiant knight who rescues everyone and marries said damsel. But what happens after that? Removing the dragon leaves a power vacuum in fairly land and surely other lower tier baddies rise to take the dragon’s place, and with the knight now settled into domestic bliss, everyone else surely returns to enslavement.
This revival of The Dragon by Yevgeny Schwartz at the Southwark Playhouse imagines exactly this problem using this fantasy trope as a means to discuss the local-national power struggles in Communist states, particularly Russia under Stalin’s regime. Set in a fictional land, Lancelot arrives in a village to discover beautiful maiden Elsa is about to be sacrificed to the dragon, an annual event to appease the ferocity of their ruler. Clearly they should be ripe for saving, but this village is reluctant to be helped and when the hero eventually faces the dragon, it unleashes unexpected tribulations for them all.
This is a pretty odd assortment of styles; imagine a blend of surreal comedy, panto, serious political satire, audience participation, Brechtian staging, physical comedy, a considerable amount of overacting and a few modern song references, shake it all together and you have The Dragon. While this is incredibly disconcerting, and even hard work to begin with, by the interval and certainly in the second act you get used to it and can engage with the slightly overlong story. However it does mean that the production see saws from surreal to serious so quickly that at times it’s hard to accept either.
It’s very simply put together with sparse staging and the lights remain up throughout. The actors greet the audience at the door and introduce themselves at the start, creating a welcoming feel, and they seem most at ease improvising the audience participation sections. Rob Witcomb as the feline narrator is an engaging guide to the story but sadly underused, while Justin Butcher outclasses everyone as the dragon creating his own sound effects with a microphone effectively and genuinely terrifying everyone in the room. Hannah Boyde and Peter Stickney as Dragon’s comedy Russian henchmen seem to have stepped out of a Roger Moore Bond film but get most of the laughs.
At times this production relies on the audience being able to imagine events being described rather than acted out including the aerial encounter between Lancelot and Dragon which is largely achieved with sound effects, village prattle and some optimistic commentary. It’s most impressive in these big ensemble scenes but in trying to be too many things it is somehow less effective in getting its message across.
This is a very strange world they have created where fantasy creatures such as cats, dragons and mermaids live alongside dictators and henchmen, and a lot will depend on the type of humour you enjoy. If seeing James Rowland’s Lancelot dressed only in pants, a cape and wellies appeals, then this show is for you, others may consider it an acquired taste. But the next time you’re waiting for a hero to smite the dragon, perhaps give a thought to what comes next; the grass isn’t always greener.
Runs Until: 10 January | Photo:Alex Brenner