Theatre Review – Chiwetel Ejiofor is Everyman (National Theatre)

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As someone who has always missed out on seeing the brilliantly talented Chiwetel Ejiofor on stage (now widely known after his utterly incredible performance in 12 Years A Slave), I was thrilled on hearing the news he was returning to the stage in this National Theatre production and on Saturday I attended one of the previews (press night is on Wednesday).

This is a new adaptation of Everyman, one of the Morality plays of medieval England. Unfamiliar with the play beforehand, I hadn’t realised how its basic story has been carried through the work of other more recent playwrights, such as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and despite its age, it’s certainly a play that still resonates for a modern audience, particularly through Carol Ann Duffy’s contemporary adaptation.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Everyman. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Everyman. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

The premise is a straightforward one to understand – disappointed with our behaviour as a race, God decides to teach a lesson through an ordinary person. This “everyman” is faced with the end of his life when Death pays him a visit, from which point he must search for supporters willing to stand beside him and speak for him at his reckoning before God, forcing him to reflect on his life and what truly matters in the world. It may sound as if it’s deep and heavy material, but the beauty of this production is how accessible it is for the audience. Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s contemporary text doesn’t feel forced, instead fitting perfectly in to the hedonistic world Everyman inhabits and her rhyming verse, which runs throughout the whole play, ensures it has a wonderful rhythm, which carries the production smoothly through its one hour 40 minute running time (no interval). The gentleman next to me commented before it started that this was quite a difficult play – I think the modern setting for the production soon had him a bit surprised as to what he was seeing and I loved that aspect of Rufus Norris’s first show as director since he replaced Nicholas Hytner as Director of the National Theatre.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kate Duchene. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Penny Layden. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Chiwetel Ejiofor is brilliant as Everyman (yes that is his name), a 40 year old, successful guy, whose life revolves around the grandeurs of excess and indulgence, whether drink, drugs, sex or the acquisition of monetary possessions. However his 40th birthday celebration ends with Death on the scene, played superbly by Irishman Dermot Crowley. He is darkly comic, sarcastic and disturbing, as he makes no effort to hide how much he relishes his job and he is never far away as Everyman continues on his journey towards his final reckoning. Kate Duchene is also excellent as God, fittingly portrayed as a cleaner of our mess and bag lady Good Deeds and I loved Penny Layden’s performance as Knowledge, who Everyman turns to for help, in the form of a homeless person, worlds away from the world within which we first encounter him. As the play progresses, so does our connection with Ejiofor’s character, as we see him re-evaluate our responsibility not just to ourselves, but to the world as a whole and I found it a surprisingly emotional and moving performance to watch.

The production is dynamic, imaginative and full of energy and vibrancy, with wonderful choreography by Javier de Frutos, striking music, which combines the old with the new by William Lyons and strong performances. I have yet to see Rufus Norris’s other play of his inaugural season (Light Shining in Buckinghamshire) and as someone who very much disliked London Road (yes, I know I’m in the minority there!), I was a little nervous as to whether his style of theatre would appeal to me. However, if Everyman is an indication of future seasons at the National, I think I’ll be very happy indeed.

Everyman runs in rep on the Olivier stage of the National Theatre until 30th August 2015, with an NT Live cinema screening on 16th July 2015. Travelex tickets at just £15 (which are a bargain) are still available for some performances. For more information and ticket availability, visit the website here.

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