Olivier – National Theatre
10th August 2015
March this year saw the induction of the newly appointed artistic director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris; his production of Everyman marks the launch of his regime. Norris, along with poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, presents a lyrical and modern adaptation of the anonymous 15th Century morality play.
Utilising the technical capacities of the Olivier stage, the play begins as Everyman (Chiwetel Ejiofor) plummets in slow-motion from the rafters. A large, curved LED screen is the predominant design feature, radiating bright white light, interspersed with flashes of Everyman’s life. The vast screen works well considering the modernity of the piece, however designer Ian MacNeil’s strung up silver plated mannequins that descend for certain scenes look a little tacked on and the reason for their presence is elusive.
The early party scene is an energetically choreographed (by Javier De Frutos) exhibition of 21st Century hedonism; an orgiastic concoction of booze, narcotics, lust and Donna Summer. Following Everyman’s drug-induced fall he promptly meets with God, in the guise of a put-upon cleaning lady (a droll Kate Duchêne), and Death (Dermot Crowley). Uninvitingly summoned to his reckoning, Ev thence scrambles to assemble the important people in his life to help him out. The scene involving his family is touching and down to earth in contrast with the previous superficial hedonism. Despite Ev’s incantation ‘best son’ (trying to persuade himself more than anything), it is soon evident that he is anything but and the domestic scene highlights the familial duties he has neglected in his preoccupation with all things materialistic.
After facing rejection from his friends, family and his material goods, Everyman comes to the realisation that ultimately, in the face of death and god’s reckoning, he is alone, bereft of worldly possessions, and it is good deeds that matter (represented by heaps of moving waste carrier bags). Whilst Ev does not necessarily find himself to be a wealth of good deed – in fact he berates himself for his selfish lack of such – it is his meeting with Knoweldge (Penny Layden) that allows him to gain a sense of self and personal enlightenment. His embracing of himself, life and death in all their faults and glories is goosebump inducing as the haunting melodies of ‘I Feel Love’ and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ meld, propelled by the incessant pulse of the drum. Everyman’s final words encompass his progression and are humorously truthful; Death is indeed a ‘cunt’.
While the production is firmly centred in contemporary times, it is underpinned with assured reference to original contexts. The use of traditional instruments evoke the morality play’s medieval roots. Similarly, Duffy’s use of verse is admirable and generally succeeds; only a few times did certain rhymes jar, but that may be due to the delivery more than Duffy’s writing.
Ejiofor delivers a monumental performance as Everyman. In a role that could so easily fall into hamminess, Ejiofor is completely natural and believable, in his hands the rhyming verse never sounds contrived. Sharon D. Clarke also impresses as Mother and gets to show off her immense vocal prowess in the musical numbers; her soaring voice adds a soaring emotion to the drama. Finally, Crowley’s Death is all Irish charm, concealing a biting edge – his final appearance, looming over the audience, ready to pick his next victim, is truly chilling.
Norris’s production is bold, vigorous and cool. He does not shy away from epic spectacle as evidenced in his use of a gigantic fan, representing a tsunami, blowing wads of money throughout the audience - an immersive experience that one would have missed out on if attending the NT Live screening in July. A benefit of modernisation is that it turns the spotlight onto our contemporary world. In an age that is increasingly secular, Everyman poses some big questions and this production is a valiant start to Norris’s tenure as he sets out his stall as an inventive and adventurous director.
Everyman plays at the Olivier – National Theatre until 30th August 2015