The Dragon with Tripod

Posted on 05 July 2013

How many comedians dream of taking their comedy to television or film? They may be interested in bringing their hosting, standup, or sketch to a wider public. A few will want something story based.

If you are interested in story based comedy, I would strongly suggest spending some time getting familiar with standard theatre. Film and television involves a lot of paperwork with perhaps no payback, and no way of knowing whether or not your concept, or its realisation, would work.

In theatre you learn how to dramatically stitch scenes together, you learn how to build drama, you learn how to bring characters to life in interaction with other characters. All skills you will need to be successful as a playwriter or screenwriter. And you have plenty of opportunities to put your plays in front of an audience, learning from their reactions.

The Malthouse production of The Dragon by Evgeny Shwartz is a good place to observe how it’s done. The play is a satire mixing both drama and comedy. The cast is a mix of dramatic and comedic performers. In particular Tripod: Scott Edgar, Steven Gates, and Simon Hall were brought in to give the work more levity. Also heading the cast is experienced comic actor Kim Gyngell, who you may remember from his television appearances in The Comedy Company and Full Frontal amongst others.

The Dragon is a fairytale about Lancelot coming to the town of Dufresne to kill a dragon. This particular Lancelot lives in a modern world and Dufresne is a mythical East European village on the verge of receiving television. The villagers have come to terms with a dragon: it protects their village and they sacrifice a virgin once a year. As such their culture, and even their power structures, have come to embrace this arrangement.

The play was first written and performed in 1944 and was seen as subversive in post-war Russia. The version we are seeing is an adaptation by Toby Schmitz directed by Marion Potts.

Actors and directors who do not have a background in comedy frequently do not have the timing to keep a work funny. Instead you can get something sad and tiresome. The performers and director of The Dragon were fully committed to the humour, showing equal respect for comic skill and art as for dramatic. The results had the opportunity to be both funny and poignant.

Edgar, Gates, and Hall were fabulous as the spirit guide animals. This was such a delightful conceit, I hope they try it again in one of their own shows. They were also impressive as the dragon. Kim Gyngell was funny and he brought an intense subtlety to his performance that made the play’s themes come to life.

Nikki Shiels as the virgin sacrifice and Jimi Bani as Lancelot kept themselves grounded in the drama. Both put forward emotionally honest performances that demonstrated exactly why they have won awards.

This is meant to be a mature work, so I will take the kid gloves off for a couple points. The Dragon is clearly the work of another generation. This needed to be made clearer, presenting it as a historic work, or it should have been more “based on” rather than merely “adapted from”. The first thing my husband said after the show was, “That was sexist”.

Elsa, the sacrifice character, is the only female in the show and she has no agency whatsoever in the plot. Worse, she is made to be the prize for whoever wins as the alpha male. At first she is going to be the dragon’s bride, then she is the mayor’s bride, then everything is happily ever after when she is Lancelot’s bride. You might get away with her being this helpless, if you perhaps cast the mayor’s child Henry or the scientist character as female in order to provide counter examples of womanhood. What was done showed a lack of imagination.

I personally was most concerned about the use of the Great Man Theory of history. The theory goes: “The history of the world is but the biography of great men” Thomas Carlyle.

We had this gorgeous symbolic representation of an oppressive power who in part derives that power because of the willingness of people to oppress themselves. Sadly, the solution is not for people to change their attitudes and to take action, but to wait around for Lancelot to come and save them. So we had the dragon, the mayor who took the place of the dragon, and our new dragon who is assumed okay because, you know, Lancelot. No one takes responsibility for themselves or their situation.

At the end Lancelot has an overly long monologue about how we should all seek to overcome dragons, but nowhere in the play were ordinary citizens portrayed as being capable of that. The speech is hollow.

In the program Director Marion Potts speaks about: “…our adult need to have fairytales, to hear about acts of bravery and to project ourselves as heroes: our chests puff up at the thought of injustice and adversity and we imagine that we might actually effect change–that we have a real choice about our destiny.”

I found this statement difficult to interpret. Did she mean projecting ourselves onto heroes helps us to believe we can make change, or that making change is a fairytale? Having only muscular charismatic men as role models causes change-making to seem out of reach for most people, particularly if heroes are portrayed as standing alone. Saying change-making is a fairytale would be deeply ironic and shamefully cynical.

Much of The Dragon is excellent. You can see why all these people were brought together to create this work. I just hope the director and the adapting playwright go out and spend some time connecting with the need for and effectiveness of citizen action, then represent that as well.

The Dragon
27 June – 26 July
The Malthouse Theatre
113 Sturt Street, Southbank

Peace and kindness,


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