Review: Everyman, National Theatre

“It seems every man has had enough of me”

Starting quite literally with the Fall of Man, Carol Ann Duffy’s contemporary verse adaptation of medieval morality play Everyman sees Rufus Norris direct his first production since taking up the reins of Artistic Director at the National Theatre and finds him in a rather provocative mood. Through 100 minutes of boldly imagined drama, it’s hard not to feel that there’s an element of grabbing this institution by the lapels and giving it a good old shake. Not so much in establishing a definitive vision for the future per se but more in establishing just how wide its parameters will be. 

Norris and designer Ian MacNeil work cleverly within the constraints of the Travelex budget to provide impactful moments with – variously – Tal Rosner’s video wall, a powerful wind machine, William Lyons’ music which combines shawms with Sharon D Clarke most effectively and bags of rubbish. Javier De Frutos makes a significant contribution too as choreographer and movement director, the wordless opening sequence of a coke-and-Donna-Summer-fuelled birthday party makes for a bold beginning.

The story sees Chiwetel Ejiofor’s titular character reach his 40th birthday with quite the landmark – a visit from God, a marvellously sonorous Kate Duchêne, in the form of a cleaner and She ain’t happy. Mankind has been pissing away the multifarious gifts of life in pursuit of hedonistic pleasure and now it is time for a reckoning – She’s unleashing Death on Everyman, in the form of Dermot Crowley’s wonderfully sardonic Irishman in what must be a C&A suit, and Everyman will be forced weigh up all the good and bad deeds in his life.

This he does by embarking on a personal odyssey, desperately hunting for family and friends to help him justify his life’s choices but it turns out they’re pretty thin on the ground and so the journey to self-realisation begins. Ejiofor is a hugely charismatic performer and the energy expended here is palpable as he ricochets from meeting to meeting, discovering how little meaning material Goods have, how little real Knowledge he possesses, how malnourished the Good Deeds of his life are.

The capital letters aren’t accidental by the way, the other characters of the play are all abstract ideas (as well as being part of the Fellowship, Clemmie Sveaas is Insecurity, Nicholas Karimi Smell etc) and the way the ensemble swirls around Everyman’s life is a source of constant interest, a dynamic and modern approach to morality that never feels heavy-handed. It’s a production that may leave you feeling wrong-footed, and it won’t appeal to everyone, but to me it feels like the precursor to interesting times ahead.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Richard Hubert Smith

Booking until 30th August 

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