This play is a moral and political fable in the guise of a farcical fairy tale. It tells of the attempt of knight errant, Sir Lancelot, to free a village from the reign of terror of ‘The Dragon’ and, in particular, to save village maiden, Elsa, from the dreadful fate of being sacrificed to the beast. The problem that Lancelot encounters is that the villagers are not keen to see the end of The Dragon. Some are willing accomplices to his tyranny; others are so fearful of change that they prefer ‘the devil they know’. Even Elsa and her mother are at first willing to go along with the rule of The Dragon for fear of what “the Jews and the Gypsies” might do if the power of The Dragon is overthrown.
Yevgeny Schwartz wrote this play in 1943 as an attack on totalitarianism. From our vantage point it looks like an attack on Stalinism but it has a lot to say about any regime which intimidates its citizens into silence.
Tangram deliver the play with a massive charge of enthusiasm and inventiveness. The actors welcome the audience as we arrive and the play begins with a narrator introducing us to “the goodies and the baddies” and schooling us about the response we will be called on to chant when the hero arrives on stage. This all seems familiar ‘panto’ territory but…… We then plunge into a farce about oppression and tyranny and, with a couple of honourable exceptions, we face a cast of actors who seem determined to ‘ham it up’ with total abandon. There is a theory that farce works best when the actors play it straight and the over-the-top comic turns presented here led me to wish for a director who had held it all back a bit. James Rowland as Lancelot did his best to engage the support of the audience but he was not helped by a superhero costume that made him look like a cross between an overgrown toddler and a porn star. The Widow Twanky turn by Anthony Best as Elsa’s mother quickly reached the heights of self parody. The ‘keystone cops’ routines of the chorus were heavy handed and not very funny.
On the plus side, Justin Butcher was genuinely sinister both as The Dragon and as the jailer and Jo Hartland managed to invest the role of Elsa, the maiden in peril, with real dignity amidst the madness. And that is perhaps why the dramatic twist in the second half was so powerful – I will not reveal what happens but for five minutes the play changes gear and presents the central moral choice to the audience in a very challenging way, directly presenting us with the dilemma that the citizens of corrupt regimes must always face. And the play ends on a very ambiguous note, asking us to think about how a compliant and compromised populace might have to deal with freedom when it arrives.
This is a play about an important moral issue – one which resonates as we read about events in tyrannies in remote places but equally relevant to us here – when should the citizen step forward and speak out against injustice? This production spends a great deal of time generating belly laughs. The scene which faces us with the real moral drama is undeniably powerful but, in the end, seems swamped by the ragged farce, and this seems like an opportunity missed.