Some shows lack ideas, and some suffer from a surfeit. The new production from the Malthouse falls victim to the latter, but still manages to entertain in the process. One song in this show refers to testicles, and it would be hard to argue that this show lacks them. Another refers to spirit, and again the play shows a lot. A Lancelot, if bad puns are your thing. And they’ll need to be.
Toby Schmitz has adapted the Evgeny Shvarts play, one banned by Stalin for its blatant anti-totalitarianism, into The Dragon featuring Tripod, who turn out to be one of the best things in it. He’s thrown everything into the script: not only the kitchen sink but the marble bench tops and the tricky word play, the well-stocked pantry and the barbarous metaphors. Some of this writing works a treat, especially the Shakespearean insults, but most of it feels sticky and over-ripe. That a plot emerges at all is somewhat of a theatrical miracle.
Lancelot the Knight (Jimi Bani) comes to save the Damsel (Nikki Shiels), who has agreed to sacrifice herself to the oppressive Dragon (Scott Edgar, Steven Gates and Simon Hall) for the benefit of the greater good. The Mayor (Kim Gyngell) and his son (John Leary) do all they can to retain the town’s status quo, and then exploit the power vacuum when the dictator is overthrown.
Thus we get a first half that deals with a hero’s journey and a second half that seems preoccupied with the fall-out of a political void. And herein lies the problem; Schmitz seems determined to throw so many ideas at the piece, the play feels in danger of toppling under the allegorical weight. If the Dragon represents Totalitarianism, then what is the Rudd-like Mayor doing swearing up a post-revolutionary storm? And what do we make of an invisibility pill that is given to Lancelot in his moment of need?
To be fair, the original play has the dragon dead by the end of act one, and the remainder of the piece taken up by arch post-revolutionary arguments that hold little currency these days. Only Lancelot’s final speech betrays the agitprop pedigree of the original, and it doesn’t work at all in this context. With so much meta-theatrical irony in the air, the flat out polemic of the end feels kind of daggy.
None of this conveys the fun to be had, though. The cast are all superb, with Shiels and Bani an utterly charming pair of young lovers. Shiels is everywhere at the moment, and it isn’t hard to see why. Bani wins the audience over in seconds, and shows great presence throughout. Gyngell is hilarious as the foul-mouthed Mayor. And the three members of Tripod prove an ingenious choice as an all-singing coterie of animal guides, coaxing and encouraging Lancelot on his quest to kill the three-headed dragon, who they also play. Their songs are terrific, and I could have done with more.
The revolving set by Anna Tregloan is fantastic, and Marion Potts’ direction is first-rate. Everyone seems to be having a blast, and it’s mostly contagious. But satire needs to be needle sharp if it’s going to pierce its targets. And what are the targets? Self-serving politicians and complacent electorates, mainly. Partisan media, too. But the waters get rather muddy when the play throws up references to everything from the Arab Spring to animal cruelty. And the obvious allusions to K-Rudd totally hijack the second half.
The Malthouse has to be congratulated for including this shaggy and raucous production in its current season. It’s a lot of fun, and will only improve. In this case, too many ideas are better than none.
Read our interview with Simon Hall on The Dragon, storytelling, the art of comedy and the time Gatesy wept at Man of La Mancha.