The first play directed by Rufus Norris since he took over as artistic director of the National Theatre is an ambitious, frenetic production that hints at exciting times ahead for the institution.
Everyman was originally a 15th century morality play warning of the perils of pursuing bodily pleasures over the will of the church, but Carol Ann Duffy’s rapier-sharp adaptation instead concerns itself with the effects – and repercussions – of a life of indulgence at the expense of the planet. She maintains the structure and lexicon of the source material but drags it gnashing and wailing into the 21st century. God is portrayed as a cleaning lady, jadedly sweeping up the results of humanity’s excesses, rueing the “condoms… and worse” she’ll have to clean up after another night of hedonism.
Central character Everyman, played by Oscar winner Chiwetel Ejiofor, is the embodiment of man’s selfishness. He’s a self-proclaimed “Master of the Universe”; young, rich, promiscuous, bubbling over with ego and joie de vivre. We first meet him as he hurtles to his death from atop a skyscraper, after which the clock rewinds to his last night on earth, his 40th birthday party. This magnificent scene, which sets the tone for the rest of the play, is reminiscent of the epic party from The Great Beauty. Everyman and his sybaritic friends, their neon clothing glowing under UV lights, snort 20ft lines of cocaine, dance on tables, swing each other across the stage, all to a pulsing electronic soundtrack.
God does not approve. She calls in her “heavy”, Death, a foul-mouthed Irishman wielding a plastic bag in place of a scythe. He breaks the news to Everyman: it’s time to reckon with your maker.
Everyman sets off in search of character witnesses, appealing in turn to his capricious friends, neglected family and worldly possessions (wonderfully portrayed as gold-quiffed shop assistants). It’s a fantastic role for any actor and Ejiofor savours every second, from the early coke-fuelled bravado to the latter tears and recriminations, holding the stage even amid the cacophony that often unfurls around him.
Norris’ sensory overload sometimes verges on the excessive – frequent projections at the rear of the stage, for instance, are largely superfluous, distracting from the serpentine ingenuity of Duffy’s script. The most touching scenes occur after the party has dispersed and the journey is over, when Everyman ruminates on the fragile marvel that is life; a timeless message brilliantly delivered.
First published in City A.M.