If you are walking around Bankside at night and see an imposing figure talking to himself about life and death, it could be Chiwetel Ejiofor rehearsing his lines for Everyman – the National Theatre’s new production directed by Rufus Norris, with a fresh script by Carol Ann Duffy.
In discussion with Mark Lawson on the Olivier stage before the evening performance, the actor explained that, after each show, he strives to identify where he could improve and extract the best performance – eager to examine all the possibilities and avoid regrets after the play’s run ends. So, he revisits the lines on his way home after the show. And what an absolute pleasure it must be – even after several performances – to mouth Carol Ann Duffy’s ingenious weave of modern expressions, songs, images and medieval manner and rhyme. You can tell she had a hoot reworking the old anonymous classic for a new audience.
The hero – Everyman, or ‘Ev’ – is a City wheeler-dealer. We meet him at his drug-and-alcohol-fuelled 40th birthday party. After his friends are long gone and he is left alone, collapsed in a stupor, he is challenged by Death to a reckoning with God before his number is up. His journey in the play then becomes a frantic fleeing, escaping Death by attempting to confront his life and repair the damage done.
Ev is used to justifying his actions by the amounts of cash he has accumulated, buying friends along the way. The one thing he finds he cannot buy is time on this earth. In one of the standout scenes, he ventures to a department store and tries to convince the team of gold-plated personal shoppers that his fistful of credit cards should be enough to guarantee his soul – “Come on, the customer is always right!” he pleads before they throw him out. Like his drug-fuelled lifestyle, Ev’s credit has maxed out and he is low on loyalty points to God, the planet, family and fellow man too.
I love the way Duffy takes the opportunity to carve for posterity some of today’s measures of wealth – the list for high-flyers includes private health insurance. She makes this play as confrontational as the original would have been to its deeply religious audience back in the 1500s – even the most agnostic viewer will twinge at the questions about charity-giving, damage caused to the planet and the guilt of perhaps leaving it too long to make that phone call home to check up on elderly parents and long-suffering siblings. She even has a go at religion pondering hopefully that, like other man-made entities, it too will pass.
As Ev, Ejiofor finely juggles the balance between Cityboy prat that he has become and the bright young boy on the scooter that he once was. Confronted by Death towards the end, he expounds each of his senses and what he’d miss of the world. It is truly moving. In hot pursuit, Dermot Crowley’s Death – dressed in white plastic coroner’s scrubs – manages to be menacing and hilarious at the same time – in a sort of Monty-Python-meets-Mrs-Brown sort of way.
From the opening scene where Ev crashes to his death from the rooftop of the nightclub (Ejiofor says that, luckily, he is not scared of heights when he is in character!) his life flashing before him on giant, neon billboards, there were many scenes that deserved a round of applause. And, to my mind, the lifeless NT crowd were too quiet and let this performance down. That is, until the end scene when Death points his finger out at us all – “Eenie, meanie, minee, moe.” Who will be next? That shook ‘em up!
I’d love to see this play at Shakespeare’s Globe where I’m sure the audience would participate and give the energy that Lawson and Ejiofor had discussed as being crucial to a play’s life. Meantime, the NT is the venue and this play must be seen for Ejiofor’s performance and heard for Duffy’s words.
Cheers for now, Beth