The moment a blue suit clad Chiwetel Ejiofor fell from the ceiling of the Olivier theatre in front of a full length video screen of neon lights to a soundtrack of pulsing dance music I decided that the National Theatre’s Everyman was for me.
Actually, the moment I decided I would get on with this production was probably some time before sitting down in the theatre. It was probably when it was announced that Carol Ann Duffy - superstar poet, if there is such a thing, who I fucking love - was doing the adaptation. There was no way that this archetypal traditional morality play was going to be given an uninteresting or unsympathetic update in Duffy’s hands, it was just a question of which direction she was going to take it.
Everyman tells a very simple story: a man meets Death who tells him his time is up and that he must prepare himself to make a reckoning of his life in front of God. The man is young and healthy, completely unprepared to die and doesn’t have a great deal to say to God in his favour. Duffy’s update on this story is mostly to the ways that Everyman has wasted his life - booze, cocaine, fast cars, expensive holidays, gadgets, designer clothes, other stuff that a period audience wouldn’t necessarily recognise - but she also adds an element of environmental fable too. Everyman has been complicit in ruining the earth, and God is definitely not happy about that.
For me, the star of this production is Duffy’s writing. Written in verse, though not always obviously as is very much her style, the script is witty, punchy and accessible; funny, sad and beautiful (particularly when talking about the destruction of the environment). There’s also liberal use of some of the big swears which is also to be encouraged.
The writing is certainly helped along by some energetic, eye-catching staging, particularly in its use of video. One half of the stage is covered with a floor to ceiling video wall which is used largely in lieu of sets and is particularly effective when used to show the neon cityscape that Everyman falls to his death in front of. The music is great too - a very effective blend of modern dance and traditional music, from jazz to folk, with a quite literal, primal heartbeat pulsing through the action - as is the use of the Olivier’s famous revolve which is fully retracted to create a gaping chasm in the stage.
There’s no question that Chiwetel Ejiofor is a great Everyman either. The way his sunny carelessness becomes disbelief, grief, guilt, anger and, ultimately, a sad resignation is done with a lightness of touch and authenticity which makes him a plausible character rather than just an archetype. He wears a blue suit exceptionally well also. The stage is largely stolen from him, though, by Dermot Crowley as a joyfully deadpan Death and Kate Duchene as a wistful (AND FEMALE) God. Crowley in particular is a delight in every scene he is in. It’s a great part anyway, and he absolutely relishes it. The Irish accent helps to be fair.
As I think is abundantly clear, I really enjoyed this production and certainly recommend it. It really is a must for anyone who enjoys Carol Ann Duffy’s work or poetry more generally. And blue suits. Blue suits are well represented in this show.
Everyman is in the Olivier at the National Theatre until 30th August.