What: Everyman adapted by Carol Ann Duffy, dir. Rufus Norris (29th April – 30th August)
When: Tuesday 11th August
Where: Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre, London
Why: A love of the medievals; the NT’s Entry Pass scheme, once more
How: In the third row, watching every bead of sweat glisten down Chiwetel Ejiofor’s expressive and handsome face
The Somonyng of Everyman is a late medieval morality play. (A morality play is essentially a dramatic midlife crisis, but instead of manifesting itself in rashly-purchased motorbikes and affairs with younger models, it dicks around with Death.) This Everyman, a modern adaptation by Poet Laureate and crazy cat lady Carol Ann Duffy, is Rufus Norris’ debut as the new Artistic Director of the NT. And what a debut! This show is bat shit cray in a very good way.
|Just out for a casual walk with Death, NBD|
In the beginning there is God onstage, disguised as a cleaning lady, sweeping up glitter and cheerily bemoaning the relics of lewdity she’ll be mopping up after the night’s party. It’s always interesting when a woman is portrayed as a boss in art, let alone as God, and perhaps just as interesting that we associate cleaning with women. Is there a reason CAD/Norris chose God to be portrayed as female (albeit a de-sexualised female, played by Kate Duchêne) and didn’t choose to make the play’s protagonist an ‘Everywoman’? I’ll leave you to ponder than one, as I haven’t really worked out where I am with that yet.
I digress. The interactive back screen lights up with fast-flying images of the London skyline interspersed with split-second memories of birthday cakes and female faces, as Everyman (the superb Chiwetel Ejiofor, or ‘Chewy’ to his friends at his alma mater Dulwich College, according to my theatre companion) falls in slow-motion from the rafters. This reverie is overtaken once he descends into the pit upstage by a gathering of yuppie partygoers (twelve of them – how apostolic) chanting a bit of a naff rap about the ‘Masters of the Universe’. There is nothing more uncomfortable than sitting three rows from the front watching white thirty-somethings trying to rap onstage. Once we’d got all that GCSE Drama spoken wording over and done with, Everyman appeared in the midst of his 40th ‘Happy Fucking Birthday’ party. Ensemble coke-snorting, booze-downing, air-kissing and air-grinding left Ev in a bit of a state, face-down on a table wrapped in police tape and vomiting into a cleaner’s bucker (we’ve all been there). This first ten minutes was so incredibly high octane that I couldn’t bear even to twitch my pen for fear of missing some part of this Bacchanalian spectacle. My theatre companion for the afternoon quite rightly remarked after this opening sequence: “I’m exhausted!”
As Everyman awakes from his coke coma, he comes face to face with Death. Dermot Crowley’s Death was a delight. A brown trouser-suited Irishman with a jazzy granddad-at-a-wedding shirt, his almost jovial manner lulled me into a false sense of camaraderie at first. As he amusingly pulled on his white biohazard suit and flamed woolly hat, the audience was on his side. Rapidly, however, this warped humour became sinister and his chill permeating; a testament to Crowley that even with Death’s slow pace and lilting lines he became an overwhelming figure in the room. “Start reckoning!” he playfully roared at Everyman.
Ev sets off to persuade his friends to join him and plead for him before God, but he soon discovers that noone is willing, that “we’re well out of our comfort zone here”. Their immersion in all things city is aptly summed up in their refusal to present Everyman’s accounts to God: “does God work for the Inland Revenue now?”
|Is that you, God?|
Turning to the family he has all but left behind for support, Ev’s sister (long-suffering, but also somewhat of a martyr, played marvellously by Michelle Butterly) gives him the kind of ear-holing I’ve definitely given my brother before (soz bro), before he realises he loves them all too much to allow them to face Death on his behalf. An emotive soliloquy ensues as Ev is left alone in a dark circle, thundering drums rolling in the background, facing a dark night of the soul. His heart breaks as he shouts at the God he’s not sure he believes in for inflicting his parents with cancer and dementia. Anyone who has ever loved anyone sick cannot fail to be moved by his righteous anger and deep human sadness.
And BAM we’re back to the cabaret. This play is fabulous for its rollercoaster-esque narrative: those momentary pauses of pensiveness are immediately looped back into sound and fury. Everyman turns to his Worldly Goods to support him in his time of need. If there is one thing he has, he thinks, it is stuff, and maybe God will tot some of that up in his reckoning. Four gold-quiffed, gold-suited, gold-lipsticked living mannequins dazzle him with perfume and bling, filling the dark void before with an almost excessive glam (note to self: buy gold shiny suit), before predictably abandoning him after a department store orgy.
The rollercoaster jerks again and now Everyman finds himself homeless, friendless, sleeping in a bin bag by a railway track, as a procession of elephantine plastic rubbish bags parades around him, led by Knowledge, a dizzy tramp. I loved this bit. Medievally music and a procession – yum. It’s just the right side of creepy and ritualistic and Dance of Death-y for my liking.
However, having recently been educating myself on UK homelessness for a charitable venture (shameless plug: A Bloody Good Cause), I did find this sequence a little troubling. Knowledge, charmingly played by Penny Layden, is a figure of fun, a stock fool with wise saws up her sleeve, and her portrayal as a tramp seemed a little simplified. Homelessness here was portrayed as a cycle of vodka, piss, smells and cheery Dickensian oikery. It felt a little glib, a little too comedic. Nevertheless, Everyman’s wobbly-lipped declaration, “This wasn’t meant to happen to me. I matter”, does seem to sum up a certain current way of thinking from the turn-a-blind-eye political middle classes (I’m looking at you, Tories). Why help those who don’t “matter” as much as you do? Knowledge replies, “I mattered myself once.”
It all turns rather philosophical at this point. Good Deeds, a pale, sickly refiguring of Duchêne’s God, is all the hope that Everyman has left, but he has neglected and abused her throughout his life and now, at his death, she is too weak to fight for him, left abandoned amidst the literal waste of his past. As he speaks of his life in business-like terms (“negotiations” and “reckonings”), she asks him pointedly, “What does it mean to be a human being?” He has no answer.
|They can't tell you what it means to be a human being|
Having been abandoned himself by Good Deeds, Ev is left alone with Knowledge, and she seeks to teach him a very contemporary lesson on climate change via his frequent-flyer guilt. Weathermen and -women voice increasingly out-of-control reports on apocalyptic weather, as a giant fan is brought onstage and paper blown into the audience, the backscreen showing images of natural disasters. This felt a little too Al Gore for me, but did make for exciting stageplay. As the weather fades, Everyman and Knowledge are left holding one another in the rain.
We are thrown back in time, and Everyman meets his former self, a cute little Everyboy playing on his new birthday present, a scooter. (Note to self: buy adult scooter.) The boy doesn’t understand who this pissy, smelly man is before him with his poor life choices and his nostalgic wide eye. He criticises his adult self for only having one shoe, and one friend, leading to a chant of “one shoe one friend”, which I particularly enjoyed and will probably ring my brother up singing after he has read this (soz again bro). His kid self hits a nerve when he tells his newer upgrade that he “always says thank you”, leading us smoothly into Everyman and Knowledge singing the Act of Contrition in Latin (with a handy English translation) whilst self-flagellating and stepping on glass. (Mmm, Chiwetel Ejiofor self-flagellating.)
As this self-awareness floods his senses, Chewy gives us another cracking monologue lovingly detailing Everyman’s body, beauty, memory. “I have been a loving man, who has hurt people, and been hurt,” he confesses, as he comes to terms with “the brilliant luck of it – to have been born at all!”
The play draws to a close powerfully with the ensemble singing a late 18th century/early 19th century Methodist hymn (medievally contrived by the period instruments used throughout the play) about feeling and knowing the glory of the soul. As Everyman accepts death, his senses still struggle against it, bemoaning their impending annihilation, regretting the things they did and didn’t do, creating a lamentable cacophony of rue and fear. Death appears to them with a white tent which swallows them up one by one, another eerie nod to the anthropomorphic nature of medieval processions. Everyman gives up a final beautiful monologue about his soul, before calling Death a “cunt” and being claimed by God, who is “well pleased” with the “flickering little flame” of his soul. As God and Everyman leave the stage, we are left with a mildly enraged Death, unhappily “cunt”-ed, and pointing into the audience for his next victims. I would probably have shit my pants if he’d pointed at me.
|It could be YOU|
So, final thoughts:
1) It’s fascinating to see a morality play onstage, now that so much of our theatre strives to be amoral and/or delights in the ‘immoral’. What do we take from this piece, amidst all its lights and humour? (I have taken away the haunting beauty of the Methodist hymn and the knowledge that Chewy is a damn fine monologist.)
2) CAD’s script is charmingly lyrical. Its verse simultaneously captures a medieval rhythm whilst creating one all of its own. It has a continual sibilance and its internal rhymes gave me such a strong literary hard-on that I bought the playtext at the NT gift shop afterwards so I could read them again and again in bed whilst thinking about Chewy.
3) The medieval insertions (music, processions, etc.) into this otherwise very modern drama made me realise how incorrect a term “very modern drama” may be here. If “very modern” connotes lights and technology, then yes, it is a “very modern drama”; the ensemble work, the rhythms of the piece and the age-old themes it reaches out to really don’t place it within a modern frame of reference at all, and I commend it for that.
Essentially, Everyman sums up the play when he says, “this is a headfuck.” We left the NT delighted and confused, seeking refuge in a custard tart and cup of tea as we tried to unpick the manic medieval carnival of meditative madness we had just witnessed.
 I have no real evidence CAD is a crazy cat lady, other than her crazy cat lady hair, and her crazy cat lady performance in front of my GCSE-eyes at Poetry Live at the Cambridge Corn Exchange in what was probably 2006 or 2007
 Listen here for rousing melodies: https://mainlynorfolk.info/watersons/songs/thegoodoldway.html