July 17, 2015, by Peter Kirwan
Everyman (National Theatre/NT Live) @ The Broadway Cinema, Nottingham
The introduction to Chiwitel Ejiofor’s Everyman and his friends, a sequence that must have taken up a good ten minutes of drug snorting, swearing, shagging, drinking, fighting, dancing and selfie-snapping, set out Rufus Norris and Javier de Frutos’s new Everyman as achingly, perhaps even desperately, ‘contemporary’. Distilling the vices of the modern world (particularly the self-indulgent narcissism of the selfie) into a single physical sequence is perhaps the most banal and obvious way to establish the ‘badness’ of a character/world, and as a statement of intent (this being Norris’s first production for the theatre since taking over as Artistic Director), it seemed deliberately provocative. And yet, while I have seen complaints about the production’s language and overuse of worn tropes of contemporaneity, Norris and de Frutos’s skill here was in the realisation of a fluid, dynamic movement style, an aesthetic not simply of excess but of repetitiveness, conventionality, rhythm. In the world of this Everyman, humanity performed a stylised version of its own self-indulgence, moving in a rote fashion through shallow displays of individuality and enjoyment, all of which were slickly choreographed (including some quite breathtaking swinging of bodies under, around and onto tables) and highly patterned. For this production, a rare major revival of a medieval morality play, wanted to demonstrate easy complicity in order that it could force a breath.
In the medieval play, Everyman is arrested in the prime of his life by death and spends the play determining what he can take with him, before undergoing the sacraments of the Catholic faith to prepare for his salvation. Here, Carol Ann Duffy’s adaptation (its language a poetry of the banal, turning conventional dialect tropes into heightened verse) took an ecocritical focus, suggesting that humanity’s neglect of charity and family is reflected in neglect of the world, images of hurricanes and tsunamis punctuating Everyman’s journey. In keeping with this, God was no longer a Catholic figure and not attached to a fixed ideology. Kate Duchene instead began the production by sweeping the stage, pointing out that her job is to clean up before and after the ‘party’. This occasioned the shift of Everyman’s fault from being a lack of pious worship to being a lack of responsibility in the world and, crucially, led to Everyman being told at the play’s end to take his reckoning to ‘his’ God. This production was not forcing a particular version of contemporaneity on its audience; rather, it sought to suggest that all humans have a responsibility to the world and to their own souls, regardless of their belief system, and that this responsibility is ignored at our own peril.
In a demanding performance that saw him only ever briefly leave the stage, Ejiofor worked his socks off. Falling expertly between a realistic representation of a character and a complete abstraction, he at one level was an actual forty year-old man who fell drunkenly off a roof on his birthday, and at another stood for the vices of humanity. The production went much further than the medieval play in creating very specific situations, including a look back at his own youth in the person of Everyboy (who had not yet forgotten to say thank you, but was still judgmental of others). The least successful of these was the evocation of a very specific family situation, in which his oxygen-dependent mother and his confused father were both cared for by his put-upon sister, as Everyman himself stayed away from the family home. Whereas in the medieval play the kindred refuse to follow Everyman as they have their own troubles, here his mother wanted to go with him to protect him, and it was left to Everyman himself to realise that he needed to go forward by himself while his family distracted Death. While the family were well drawn (particularly Michelle Butterly’s angry sister and Sharon D Clarke as the mother, whose singing voice pervaded much of the rest of the production), their function here seemed compromised by the need to create an emotionally specific story.
The production was better when working with modern equivalents of the abstracted vices. The partying friends, who began the production with masks bearing Ejiofor’s face, abandoned him quickly as the party became too heavy for their liking, and the identification of a particularly significant ex among the masses helped emphasise the casualness with which Everyman had hurt his lovers as well as ignored his family and the poor. More abstract still, and thoroughly enjoyable, was the presentation of Goods as four personal shoppers in a multi-level department store selling cars, jewels, holidays, power and influence. Dressed as if residents of the Capitol in The Hunger Games and preening and laughing over Everyman as he fed them with credit cards, they quickly turned nasty as he spoke of owning them. Later, in what I can only assume was an homage to Labyrinth, the cast returned dressed as columns of rubbish and possessions to create the tip in which Good Deeds (doubled by Crowley) resided, unfit to move.
All of this action was motivated by God, a plain-speaking Londoner who rarely left her mop behind and whose blunt pronouncements cut through the noise, and her servant, Death. Dermot Crowley was an affable Irishman who cheerfully joked with Everyman before following him around, looming in the background in pathologist scrubs for much of the production. The production’s ‘bad guy’, his enjoyment in his own work was stressed alongside the inevitability of everyone’s death, leading Ejiofor to get the biggest ovation of the evening as, accepting his fate, he finally turned to Death and told him ‘You’re a c**t’. Death’s constant presence, however, added to the sense of time running out as Everyman scrambled to make the most of his remaining minutes in this ambiguous allegorical world. As Death, God and Everyman finally shared a breath and Death told him it was the end, a body fell suddenly from an enormous height behind them, suggesting the blink of an eye between the production’s start and end as Everyman fell from the roof.
The play makes most sense in the modern world as Everyman grasped for those who would not follow him. The penance was harder to realise, especially in the explicit evocation of religion as he flogged himself with a belt and stood barefoot on broken glass while trying desperately to remember prayers. While it was made clear that this was not the right approach – not least because of the obvious falsity of Everyman trying to force himself into a particular religious paradigm – the adaptation’s replacement was somewhat fuzzy. Best was Penny Layden’s Knowledge, a drunken down-and-out who subtly embodied Everyman, sharing his lines and wearing only one shoe to match Everyman (Death had taken one of his early in the play). Knowledge, inebriated and blunt, forced Everyman to know himself, made most explicit as they swapped suit jackets, allowing his facets (greatly expanded from the medieval play to include several poor qualities and spread out the senses) to emerge embodied. Here there was no sense of old age causing their disappearance, nor did they promise to go with him to his death (in fact, it was Everyman who had to calm them and prepare them to die with him). What did emerge from this sequence was the importance of being thankful for one’s own strength, one’s body, one’s ability to live in the world and experience it. The company sang, danced and spoke of their shared memories, privileging experience and enjoyment of the world over goods and money. As the facets disappeared (in a fantastic moment as a police tent passed over a bench on which they all sat, ‘wiping’ them away but leaving Everyman), Everyman’s journey came to its quiet end.
The snappy pace of the production prioritised the experiential and broad in these big ensemble scenes, becoming a collage of sense memories and emotive evocations of life. It had the effect of being surprisingly life-affirming, finding joy and hope in the living of life. While an overall message was more difficult to determine (particularly how it wanted to link the realisation of self to the protection of the environment), the sense became clear that this production wanted to validate the experience of being human. And as the play ended, with an irked Death picked ‘eeny-meeny-miny-mo’ among the audience, it appeared to call on its audiences to look to themselves, their own souls, their own values, their own encounters with the world. It may not be as specific as the medieval Everyman, but it seemed a fitting update.