Before the formal start of the National Theatre’s morality play “Everyman,”adapted anew in a contemporary setting by Carol Ann Duffy, we see a woman sweeping and sweeping and sweeping the stage. Who would know that the cleaning lady, played by Duehêne, turns out to be God? Perhaps the sweeping is symbolic—cleaning away the sins of human beings.
Under the direction of Rufus Norris, “Everyman,” which dates to the 15th century, stars Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role, a man who suddenly faces the fact that his life must be revisited before the final closure of death and is taken back over the past as a measurement of his relationship and deeds. (We see a man plummeting in the background.) The journey begins after a raucous 40th birthday party. Not everyone welcomes Everyman. Dermont Crowley plays Death sternly but often with wry amusement as he carries out his Grim Reaper task as Everyman faces his life and reckoning.
Ejiofor is best known for his poignant performance in “12 Years a Slave.” In this production he demonstrates impressively that he can be a powerful stage actor as well as on screen. He is handsome and has an appealing, commanding presence that makes him fascinating to watch.
I wish there were more modulation in his performance, as the hysteria he feels when learning that he is deadly entrapped continues on a high level of desperation that might at times be expressed more subtly. On the other hand, when his demeanor does tone down late in the drama, it becomes especially effective as a result of the contrast. But on balance Ejiofor is most striking and satisfying in the challenging and demanding role. He is reason enough to see the play apart from the overall rewards of this well-honed and freshly conceived production.
What Everyman is made to realize is that there has been an undue emphasis on worldly goods at the expense of his relationships, including with his family. The play is most clever as aspects of life are confronted. For example, included are Passion (Adam Burton), Vanity (Amy Griffiths), Strength (Nick Holder), Sensuality (Joshua Lacey), Conscience (Coral Messam), Goods (Burton and others), Knowledge (Penny Layden) and more. Everyman’s mother is played by Sharon D Clarke, his father by Philip Martin Brown and his sister by Michelle Butterly, part of a large supporting cast with doubling up in assorted roles.
Everyman becomes increasingly panicky and repentant as finality approaches, and he urgently wants to survive, which escalates the drama and increases our emotional involvement.
Javier De Frutos is choreographer and movement director, Ian MacNeil has designed the creatively functional set, Nicky Gillibrand the costumes, Paul Anderson the lighting and Tai Rosner the video use. Music is provided under the direction of William Lyons and there is a helping of special effects.
Performed for an hour and forty-five minutes without an interval, the play has a mesmerizing effect in its ability to tautly hold an audience. At the Oliver Theatre. Reviewed August 8, 2015.