The Theatreguide.London Review
Olivier Theatre Spring-Summer 2015
Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy has written a new version of the sixteenth-century morality play that not only updates it but gives it a sceptical non-religious spin, as if setting herself the challenge of making a wholly Christian text work in a post-Christian world.
She is, all things considered, remarkably successful – though sometimes in the manner of Dr. Johnson's dog, in that she pulls it off at all.
And despite a big, colourful and elaborate production by director Rufus Norris and his designers, it is the smallest moments most in tune with the quiet piety of the original that will move you most.
In the anonymous original a character named Everyman is told he has a date with Death and rushes to find someone to help or accompany him.
Characters named Friends, Kindred and Worldly Goods desert him, while Knowledge and Good Deeds can only go so far. It is ultimately a journey he must make himself.
In this new version Kate Duchene plays God as the overweight cleaning lady in the nightclub where Chiwetel Ejiofor's Everyman, a brash and flashy prince of the City, is celebrating his fortieth birthday.
Once an evening of drink, drugs and various debaucheries is over, she introduces him to Death (Dermot Crowley), a bored and cynical working man in a Hazmat suit, who's seen this story so many times that he can't work up more than a half-sneer at Everyman's predictable panic.
In due course and in modern terms, Ev's friends all desert him, his family have problems of their own, and the purveyors of his bling lose interest when he won't be buying any more. Good Works is an invalid weakened by his neglect of her and Knowledge a street bum who can help him think his way through the shock but do little more.
With the support of stylized movement-to-music staged by Javier De Frutos and some flashy if not particularly communicative video projections by Tai Rosner, director Norris keeps things moving quickly and interestingly enough that an inexorable forward momentum is established and any weaker patches are nicely covered.
The birthday party is a tightly choreographed portrait of debauchery worthy of Bob Fosse and the parade of salesmen and mannequins representing Worldly Goods a delicious satire.
And yet it is the quieter moments, when Ejiofor's Ev is allowed to stop and let what's happening really sink in, that work best. The conversation with Penny Layden's Knowledge gives the actor the chance to deepen and mature the character.
And there is a particularly moving and beautifully written sequence near the end as Everyman, aided by the ensemble, gets to remember the wonders that his various senses have allowed him to experience in this body he is about to abandon.
There may at moments be more razzle-dazzle than soul to this adaptation and production, but at its best it does what the original did five hundred years ago – guide us entertainingly to an awareness and appreciation of our humanity and mortality.
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