Sunday, August 02, 2015

EVERYMAN at the National Theatre: The hits keep on comin'...

I was very worried when I first heard the line-up for Rufus Norris' opening season at the National Theatre but the more I am seeing the more I am liking.  THE MOTHERFUCKER WITH THE HAT, THE BEAUX' STRATAGEM and THREE DAYS IN THE COUNTRY were all much more enjoyable than I was expecting and that feeling continues with EVERYMAN, directed by Norris in the Olivier.

The play, by an unknown author, was first performed as a Morality Play in English in the early 1500s to show the audience the error of it's ways and to fear the wrath of God.  Not exactly DREAMBOATS AND PETTICOATS then.  Mind you, anyone who sees that deserves eternal damnation.

It's a vibrant, full-on production with our hero descending from the flies on a wire, a huge wind machine that sprays money into the audience (I think someone must have been to see SLAVA'S SNOW SHOW), thumping music... oh and Donna Summer's I FEEL LOVE which, as Owen said, is an obvious musical shorthand for hedonistic, club culture. Not bad for a track nearly 40 years old!

Yes the medieval tale has been updated - to the streets of Hoxton it would appear - where Everyman, a sharp city wheeler-dealer has taken over a club for his 40th birthday.  Chitwetel Ejiofor makes a spectacular entrance, falling slowly from the flies, suited and booted while falling through space.  It looked very spectacular but what could it mean?

After a coke-fuelled rave which has the regulation fights, snogs and unspoken tensions Everyman ends up passed-out on a table.  We then meet a careworn cockney cleaner, resigned to her lot of cleaning up the mess of an ugly world only to begin again the next day.  But is she all she appears to be?

Actually she turns out to be none other than God and she decides to make Everyman an example of all that is wrong with human existence and she summons her colleague Death to deal with him.

But Everyman puts up a spirited fight to prove he has worth in the world and turns with increasing desperation to his neglected family, to his personal goods, to his good deeds, to anything that will prove he deserves more time.  But all he finds is a down-and-out called Knowledge.  Can Everyman make a justification to be allowed more time on a world whose sickness he has contributed?

The production is not a total success as it starts off with the extended, theatrical debauchery of Ev's birthday blow-out which seems never-ending, and there are other longuers that seem to tread water rather than move the action on.

But as the play reaches it's conclusion the theatrical trops fall away and Carol Ann Duffy's adaptation reaches a profound plateau that is as moving as it is simple.  Her script is wonderfully dense with ideas and certain lines leap out and strike a real chord.

Norris' production although sometimes overloaded with distractions does have a core energy that draws us nearer and nearer to the final confrontation between Everyman and his two judges.  As the latter Norris' production is blessed by two spiky, scene-stealing performances by Kate Duchene as the world-weary God and Dermot Crowley as a jokey and teasing Irish Death.

Norris also reunites with his AMEN CORNER actress Sharon D. Clarke who is great as Ev's loving but despairing mother and she also provides some soaring singing during other scenes.  She was well-partnered in the 'home' scene by Philip Martin Brown's confused father and Michelle Butterly's angry cousin, forced to stay at home and look after ailing relatives.

The heart of the play is Chiwetel Ejiofor's Everyman, onstage throughout, who goes on a journey of ever-decreasing circles from the boastful, morally corrupt city boy to the humble, scared but resigned man facing up to his fate with a learnt stoicism.  He is an actor of great power but he also has a subtle, quicksilver quality of thought and expression.  It's such a shame his stage performances are so rare.

Although they sometimes threaten to pull the attention from Duffy's script, the production team of Ian MacNeil (design), Javier De Frutos (movement), Paul Anderson (lighting) and Tal Rosner (video design) provide memorable stage moments and they are held together by the atmospheric music score of William Lyons.

I had not intended to see EVERYMAN thinking it sounded like a dour evening out but I am glad that Owen persuaded me to come along and experience it.

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