An urgent updated version of the 15 century morality play Everyman is provided by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy in the National Theatre’s stunning new production directed by the theatre’s new artistic director Rufus Norris in the Olivier auditorium.
The story opens with Everyman celebrating his 40 birthday party – clubbing, drugging, drinking but not thinking. He is successful, popular and riding high when Death comes calling and he is forced to abandon the hedonistic lifestyle he has created and embark on a last frantic search to recruit a friend, anyone to speak in his defence. But death is close behind and time is running out.
What was originally church propaganda has been transformed in Duffy’s poetic adaptation into a scathing assault on the short sighted, materialism of the modern age and a reminder of our own mortality. Indeed the play asks whether it is only in death that we can understand our lives.
The big achievement here is how well Duffy’s free-spirited, free-verse account has maintained the framework of the original while suiting the content of a secular society, aided by colloquial, down-to-earth language that resonates in the 21 century. Admittedly there is a thinness and degree of repetitiveness to the story but the play is packed with memorable characters and brilliantly sly rhymed with a more thought-provoking final third. There are also some sharp, inventive touches – God is represented as a world-weary cleaning lady, Death is a flip, ironic Irishman, and there is a marvellously realistic recreation of a tsunami which by a combination of sight and sound – large video images of gigantic waves coupled with the effects of a wind machine – really make you fear for your own life!
Norris elicits a truly commanding central performance from 12 years a slave star Chiwetel Ejiofor, who makes his entrance as Everyman on a wire, while a kaleidoscope of images conjure up bygone moments flashing behind him. Ejiofor manages to capture the disbelief of the revelation that his life must end while he is still in this prime and adroitly charts the character’s journey from complacency to contrition, ending up on the streets, transformed into a penitent man as he steps barefoot on broken glass. Kate Duchene adds a wryly compassionate touch as the cleaning woman with the marigolds and bucket who embodies the figure of God merged with Good Deeds and Dermot Crowley cuts an easy going but sinister figure as Death.
A further word of praise must go to the small groups of musicians with their medieval, renaissance and traditional instruments that serve to root the play in its origins but also combine with modern elements to create a new sound world, one that is at times redolent of earlier primal music and at others very much rooted in the contemporary world. The synthesis of old and new does much to enhance the atmosphere and dramatic effect of the piece.
A profound work, then, which both entertains and troubles our collective conscience.
Runs at the National Theatre, Olivier auditorium until Saturday 30 August
Box office: 020 7452 3000Last modified: April 7, 2021