The Dragon, Southwark Playhouse


Ever wondered what happens in the fairytale after the dragon has been slain and everyone has been handed their “happily ever after”? In Yevgeny Schwartz’s 1943 satirical play The Dragon – and now in Tangram Theatre Company’s clowning adaptation – villains aren’t quite so easily deposed and the victims of oppression aren’t all that eager to be rescued. Sound at all familiar?

Knight errant Lancelot is in the business of slaying dragons. In one of those many once upon a times, he stumbles into a small town which is – surprise surprise – being terrorised by one of the fire breathing monsters he specialises in. What he finds, however, is something he’s never encountered before: a population who are willing – no, positively delighted – to be ruled over by this reptilian tyrant. After all, they reason, what other monsters might move in if this one were to leave?

But our scantily clad, testosterone dripping hero isn’t one to back down. After promptly falling for resident damsel in distress Elsa (fairytale archetypes, our storytellers warn us at the outset, are all present and correct), who is due to be sacrificed to Dragon the next day, Lancelot insists on a fight to the death. What he fails to anticipate is that, in the absence of one source of power, others will be all too quick to grab the reins.

This is cartoonish satire, and Tangram revel in it. There’s cross-dressing, dodgy costumes and caricatures galore, perhaps the most entertaining coming in the form of Hannah Boyde’s nutty, power-hungry mayor, who swiftly steps into the void left by Dragon. James Rowland’s Lancelot is half-lad, half-superhero, leaping boyishly around the stage, while Justin Butcher makes a brilliantly hammy villain. And it’s all presided over by talking cat narrator Rob Witcomb, archly acknowledging that this is all really just fooling around on a stage.

Warming everyone up for panto (all together now: “he’s behind you!”), The Dragon has more than a healthy dose of silliness, villainy and audience participation. But smuggled in under the cover of cape-wearing knights, fake moustaches and bad Russian accents is a much more serious point – or rather points. Because the targets of Tangram’s satire are multiple, extending the show’s aim well beyond Schwartz’s original attack on Stalinist totalitarianism. Now we have extra shots at political apathy and the current political landscape, culminating in an earnest but awkward plea for us all to get off our arses and actually do something.

The problem is, Tangram’s sudden call to action just doesn’t feel earned. There’s definitely something to be said for sneaking in political content, clothing provocative points in madcap comedy and forcing laughs that sour in the mouth. But in its climactic political speech, as Elsa (Jo Hartland) berates us all for failing to act, The Dragon becomes more hectoring than galvanising. This sequence breaks abruptly with everything that precedes and follows it – and not in a useful way. Its jolt is that of a clunky gear change rather than of a sudden, rousing revelation.

That old adage of “show, don’t tell” shouldn’t always necessarily be obeyed. I’ve encountered plenty of theatre that makes an art out of telling. But here, the telling is just too explicit, dissolving a previously fun yet thoughtful piece of theatre into pure (if passionate) lecture. It would be enough to present us with the narrative’s cheerfully submissive townspeople, who already accusingly reflect back our own complacencies. My sympathies are absolutely with the message, but I don’t go to the theatre to be told outright what to think. There’s a line, if a fine and blurry one, between that which energises and that which preaches. Make me want to act, don’t tell me to act.

Photo: Alex Brenner.