The cast of The Dragon | Malthouse Theatre (Pic: Jeff Busby)

Director Marian Potts’ energetic production of The Dragon at the Malthouse, a rumbling critique of a corrupt and corrupting political culture, is well-timed given the strange shenanigans going on in Canberra. But it’s ultimately let down by a lack of cohesion and a pedestrian ending that feels only semi-cathartic.

That is not to say my guest and I didn’t have a very enjoyable evening. I have always liked the story of Lancelot a medieval jock with all the right instincts minus finesse or discernment. Played with beefy abandon by Jimi Bani, Lancelot can’t help involve himself in others mischief, going after dragons and falling in love at first sight.

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But Toby Schmitz’s adaptation has a peculiar twist: Lancelot may have stumbled upon a village notorious for being oppressed by a terrible dragon and a beautiful maid about to be sacrificed, but neither the village nor the maid want his help. Well fed and in a semblance of peace they are perfectly happy with their “oppression”.

The fundamental issue — should individual freedom be traded for comfort and certainty? — is one that has been bothering thinkers since the Greeks invented democracy, and in our era of comfort and complacency it takes balls to tackle such big ideas. Metaphor is central to the ambition of the night and it is no mere coincidence the only woman in the cast is a trophy redhead objectified by scheming men and made into a sacrificial lamb.

I like that this production — with its haze-filled auditorium, multi-media overlay and stage revolving like a nutty carousel — owes more to stand-up comedy and Shrek than to Plato’s Republic. Still, you can never be half pregnant, and as the night progressed I found myself wondering whether I was watching a review, a pantomime, a musical, a play or a multimedia extravaganza. The fact The Dragon is all of the above should work in its favour, but at heart it feels curiously uncommitted; music and dance the one minute, Shakespearian language the next.

The highlight of the evening is the well-known Melbourne comedy trio Tripod (Scott Edgar, Steven Gates and Simon Hall) playing the comic bards and three-headed dragon. These slick and witty comedians are excellent. Their original songs include the amusing opener, Not Every Show Begins With A Song In Point Form. Tripod is the glue that keeps this ambitious, rambling and over-reaching production together.

Nikki Shiels performance as the apple-chomping Elsa is memorable, particularly in one scene where she tumbles down hills head-first in a piece of perfect choreography. Being a trophy is at most a two-dimensional role and kudos to Shiels for creating a more intriguing presence as the night progressed.

Veteran Kim Gyngell’s mayor is a scheming weasel who transforms into a monster with a Kevin Rudd-like temper dominating the stage at the end of the play. Together with Henry (John Leary), his glib media sidekick, the play delves into the vexed world of political and media, spin exploring the hollow motives of shallow people in power, as relevant today as in any era.

The final battle with the three-headed monster is impressive and ends with an explanation: the miserable ease people in democracies are prepared to believe myth as fact, lies as truth. They crave the replacement of one dragon by another or even by a hero, allowing them to feel comfort as long as government runs smoothly and well.

The Dragon makes an attempt to tackle serious issues and does so with some keen humour, good music, smoke and whistles.

The details: The Dragon plays Malthouse’s Merlyn Theatre until July 26. Tickets on the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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