by Yevgeny Schwartz adapted by Daniel Goldman and Tangram Theatre Company
Southwark Playhouse (The Little) 77-85 Newington Causeway SE1 6BD To 10 January 2015.
Tue-Sat 7.30pm Mat Sat, Sun, 31 Dec & 2 Jan 2pm no evening performance 31 Dec, 1 Jan.
Post-show Discussion 30 Dec.
Runs 2hr 20min One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7407 0234.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 20 December.
Precision acting and direction make this low-tech production riveting.
It’s amazing playwright Yevgeny Schwartz lived until 1958; a Jewish political dissident in the anti-semitic tyranny of the Soviet Union, his fairy-tale abstraction here only thinly veils its relevance to Stalin’s rule.
Schwartz’s first two acts (up to the interval in Daniel Goldman’s production for Tangram Theatre) is a straightforward George and the Dragon-like story. Except this Dragon doesn’t need to breathe fire and stretch scaly wings. The compliant townsfolk have persuaded themselves he’s good for them, deserving half their income plus a sacrificed maiden every year, for he looks after them and keeps worse dragons away.
Like people in a Mob-run area the town’s population repress anxieties and fear while life is bearable and they are told what to believe. So when the outsider Lancelot arrives, quite a few people oppose him. After all, in any fight the Dragon will win, as he always does. And it won’t do to have cheered on the wrong side, not with all the Dragon’s informers about. The seduction by power and strong will which Schwartz depicts is what gives rise to Stockholm syndrome in hostage situations, and at state level was behind such post-war plays as Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit and Max Frisch’s The Arsonists.
But the battle’s less clear-cut than expected. And what’s surprising, after the interval, is what has happened to the town. When Lancelot returns, subservient bureaucrats have moved themselves up the chain to perpetuate the system. In this political fable love expresses the belief in freedom, while the sacrifice of a young woman symbolises oppression.
Given a large budget, it could be staged with splendid effects. The only other way is Goldman’s. He abandons set and theatrical lighting. The cast play with clear-etched immediacy before us and audience members are recruited as townspeople. The directness and sense of enforced yet willing compliance is a source of humour but also gives a shock at realising how close to daily experience is the slide into mental subservience and social straitjacketing.
If the overall parable is clear enough, its enactment is still startling, and drag on the performance certainly does not.
Mother: Anthony Best.
Dragon: Justin Butcher.
Mayor: Hannah Boyde.
Elsa: Jo Hartland.
Lancelot: James Rowland.
Henry: Peter Stickney.
Cat: Rob Witcomb.
Chorus: James Richard Marshall, Stella Taylor Charlotte Workman.
Director: Daniel Goldman.