Rufus Norris directs Everyman, Carol Ann Duffy’s modern day morality play, with supreme confidence in his first outing as the National Theatre’s new boss.
As a statement of intent, at the start of his tenure as artistic director, this bold, imaginatively told story makes its mark from the very start in an opening scene that sees Chiwetel Ejiofor’s hedonistic playboy fall from a skyscraper roof.
Duffy uses Everyman to endorse her green credentials. Not only is this wealthy waster accused by God of squandering his own life but he’s also found wanting in doing his bit to save the planet. It’s a collective guilt trip with Death cruelly pointing his finger into the audience marking out his next victims.
Everyman is celebrating his 40th birthday and he’s being thrown the mother of all parties. Drink, drugs, sex, surrounded by his mates and richly serenaded by, among other things, a banging’ rap. A long line of cocaine is consumed. The night is the ultimate in conspicuous excess where friends pay homage to this particular Master of the Universe.
But it’s destined to end badly. Shuffling around in the background is a char, sweeping up the detritus of humanity. She’s pretty angry and severely disappointed in the wretch and accuses him of being a lazy, selfish, thankless fool.
God stops sweeping and summons Death, demanding that he extracts a reckoning from Everyman before coming before her.
The birthday boy, abandoned on a bench, wakes, so he thinks, severely hung-over (the least of his problems), to be confronted by the splendid Dermot Crowley as God’s heavy, a wonderful, single-minded, cold-hearted and contemptuous Irishman who spends most of the 100-minute play stalking our anti-hero.
I felt a bit sorry for the Grim Reaper’s intended. He’s just been told that his life is over, cut off in his prime, and not only must he account, and show contrition, for the mess that he has made of his life but he’s also been burdened with apologising for the destruction of the planet. I think I even heard the word fracking mentioned.
There’s a tremendous scene when mountains of waste is trundled onto the stage and we see God struggling to survive amid the pollution. Death and his cronies wheel on a mobile hurricane while a video backcloth graphically depicts the shocking effects of climate change.
Set pieces involving Everyman’s confrontations with his family and his luxury goods lifestyle are both powerful and uncompromising.
Our debauched spendthrift faces his past and present a little like A Christmas Carol or It’s A Wonderful Life but for him there’s no redemption. No second chances.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is magnificent, giving an intense and moving, multi-layered performance as a non-believer who is tested and found wanting while Kate Duchêne makes a sublime celestial being able to remain remarkably calm at seeing Man’s greed and self-indulgence.
It’s a thought-provoking piece, beautifully told with stunning visuals and language that swings from rhyme to prose though, on reflection, I’d stop short of changing into a hair shirt or flagellating myself like our penitent and flawed Everyman.
Everyman runs until August 30 but is broadcast live as part of the NTLive initiative on July 16.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is Everyman, a hedonist and wastrel who has squandered his life and must now face a reckoning in Carol Ann Duffy’s superb and powerful morality play at the National Theatre until August.