A Tudor morality play about “Everyman”, caught between God and Death and forced to relive his past wrongs through meetings with allegorical figures before venturing with remorse into the afterlife, may sound like the kind of production you’d see at The Globe. It may even sound eerily familiar to those with a penchant for a particular Christmas tale. But no, this is the second production at The National under the newly appointed Artistic Director Rufus Norris – the first to be directed by Norris himself – with the 15th century English text given a modern update by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy.
It sounds like an odd juxtaposition of old and new, and it’s one that mostly works. The set is dominated by a tall video screen, with design from Tal Rosner, whilst pounding electronic music forms the soundtrack. And there’s choreographed movement from Javier De Frutos that is particularly impressive in the play’s first main scene: after Everyman falls face first in slow motion, we witness his 40th birthday celebration almost totally without dialogue, instead shown through dance, high-tempo music and a whole load of cocaine. It’s about as far removed from Tudor England as you can imagine.
It’s a scene that epitomises the technological spectacle on offer here, but Duffy’s script doesn’t always fare so well. There is some clever modernising of the free verse that turns potentially stuffy dialogue into colloquial speech, matching the design of the production. This is an Everyman of the everyday, reducing the grand philosophical themes to approachable modern realism. God, for instance, is a female cleaner who looks like she’s been plucked from a comedy sketch. Indeed, it’s mostly comedy, as opposed to philosophical or psychological depth, that’s been added with this modernisation, with Duffy shoehorning in plenty of current references to celebrities and culture alongside liberal swearing. At times this feels like a smart retelling; at others it feels forced. The scene involving the “Goods” characters is simply a cheap dig at modern consumerism.
At the centre of it all is Chiwetel Ejiofor as Everyman. He seems far too well-spoken and successful to come across as this troubled, rebellious soul and his grand, almost Shakespearean, delivery is more in-line with the play’s philosophical origins than this modern aesthetic. That said, he is a compelling presence on-stage, a leading man who’s very easy to watch – the success of the play rests principally on his shoulders. As in 12 Years A Slave, he is able to deliver heartfelt emotion with touching sincerity. Amongst the excellent ensemble is Sharon D Clarke who offers some beautiful singing.
This Everyman is a polished, modern production but it’s unable to fully escape the trappings of the past. As a morality play it is rife with Christian connotations that seem out of step with today’s predominantly secular society. And whilst Norris directs with abundant creativity, there remain clichéd elements such as showering his lead with water at his moment of salvation, whilst Duffy’s text sometimes misses the mark and fails to make this tale relevant to a modern audience. It remains, however, a thought-provoking, if at times baffling, piece of theatre.
Watch: Everyman runs at the National Theatre until 30th August.