NT Live’s ‘Everyman’ gives a 15th century morality play a 21st century facelift
Britain’s poet laureate turns one of the oldest English dramas into a timeless argument against materialism
Rufus Norris began his reign as Artistic Director of London’s National Theatre with a brilliant updating of the medieval morality play, Everyman. If this is any indication of what lies ahead, we’re in for some great theater.
The original allegory, though the cornerstone of the English dramatic heritage, can nevertheless make for some pretty heavy going.
Grieved at watching Everyman (representing all humanity) think only of worldly prosperity while neglecting all that is truly important, God sends Death to tell him his time is up. Everyman tries to find someone who will come along and support him at the final reckoning. His erstwhile friends, and even his family, say something along the line of “thanks, but no thanks.” He then calls out to Goods (representing material possessions), only to learn that you can’t take it with you. He turns to his Good Deeds, who though happy to come along is too weak because of his long neglect to make the journey.
When Knowledge encourages Everyman to confess his sins and be saved, Everyman weeps for joy.
Norris called upon Britain’s Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, to rewrite the play for contemporary audiences — leading to a fruitful National Theatre collaboration between Norris, Duffy, choreographer Javier De Frutos and the cast. Norris’s real coup, though, was casting the superb actor Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role.
Ironically, when Ejiofor was in acting school in his native England, the son of Nigerian parents was advised to change his name, lest he be typecast for roles only as an African. In this play, however, he stands for all humanity. Following his Oscar nomination for Twelve Years a Slave, Ejiofor has been in demand as a film actor, though his roots draw him back to the stage. (In 2007 he won an Olivier for his performance of Othello at London’s Donmar Theatre.)
As Everyman, Ejiofor is at the center of the action throughout the intense two-hour the play. (No intermission here.) From the time he makes his dramatic entrance (dropped from high above the Olivier stage) to his final enlightened recognition that “I have a soul,” Ejiofor runs the gamut of emotions — from cockiness (as a high-flying party-giver) to terror (when confronted by Death), to despair (when he loses hope) and finally to acceptance.
Here’s a taste of what the modern adaptation achieves. As the audience files in (the play was filmed at the National Theatre’s large Olivier Theatre), a cleaning woman is sweeping the stage. How can you represent God in a 21st century play? Norris’s answer is: Who better knows the detritus of a consumption-happy society than a cleaning woman?
Wearily reflecting on the state of society, the cleaning woman is getting ready for Everyman’s 40th birthday. And what a party it is! Against a background of brilliant splashes of psychedelic color and driving music with a disco beat, the partygoers’ dancing becomes more and more frenetic. Everyman treats his friends to about 10 pounds of cocaine tossed across the table, which they snort up greedily. The party ends with a graphically choreographed orgy — leaving a wasted Everyman, looking more dead than alive.
Duffy’s adaptation faithfully follows the outline of the original, but fleshes out the bare bones of the Medieval tale with contemporary references. When Everyman, warned of his imminent death, returns home looking for support from his family, his mother is thrilled because he hasn’t been home in years. Will she come with him? No, but she’ll pray for him. His sister is resentful because she was the one stuck at home caring for their parents, emptying their senile father’s colostomy bag. Duffy’s narrative is always clear, and her powerful language at once poetic (there are terminal rhymes) and colloquial.
As the play progresses, it becomes clear that this modern Everyman’s sin is not merely greed and conspicuous consumption, but also indifference to ecological reality.
“The angels weep to see the ruin of the Earth,” God says. At one point of Everyman’s journey of self-discovery he finds himself surrounded by mounds and mounds of trash in plastic bags. Even climate change enters the picture. In the production’s most spectacular stage effect of all, a huge fan is brought on stage to simulate a tsunami. The scene needs to be seen to be believed.
And see it you can, if you live in the Syracuse area. The Manlius Art Cinema will be offering two additional showings: Thursday, Aug. 6 at 2 p.m., and Saturday, Aug. 8 at 11 a.m.
What: Everyman, new version by Carol Ann Duffy, directed by Rufus Norris
Who: Broadcast by National Theatre Live
Local area showing: Manlius Art Cinema
Date of performance reviewed: Aug. 2, 2015
Encore performance: Aug. 6 at 2 p.m. and Aug. 8 at 11 a.m.
Ticket prices: Regular $18, senior $15