Sunday, 26 July 2015

'Everyman' at the National Theatre

Sometimes you see plays that make you laugh, bring you joy or make you wish you'd never bought tickets. And sometimes you see a play that makes you think and makes you wonder, and that's what I saw on Saturday night - 'Everyman' in the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the role of Everyman. The text is a new version of the old story by Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate, so it's thoughtful and lyrical by turns.

It's Everyman's 40th birthday and he has a flash party in a club with all his friends and ex-girlfriends and after the initial greetings the music starts pounding and the lights flashing. The bag of coke emerges and is spread out on tables for everyone to partake and get wild. Everyman has such a good time he passes out and his friends leave. Then God appears and summons Death. God wants Death to choose a representative human, an everyman, to justify humanity's existence and lo, there lies Everyman in a drugged-up stupor. So Death explains Everyman's challenge and sends him off on a journey to explore the soul of humanity.

Everyman calls on his friends to help him, help him travel to God and say he's a good man. But they can't do that. His ex-partner can't because he had affairs with other women and a man. They know him and his faults so friendship isn't core to humanity. He visits his family because they must have a good word for him - they're family after all. But Death comes a calling and Everyman escapes out the back door to protect his family. Money and possessions, yes, that's what everyone wants. So Everyman goes to a glitzy department store with everything for sale, including philanthropy on the top floor. He's spend tonnes of money in that store and they love him so he wants to buy the shop assistants to say a good word for him before God. But they can't do that, no, they're already on the other side of the glass wall that divides them from God. He can keep his credit cards since they can't be bought.

Down on his luck and despairing, Everyman finds himself with the down and outs and this is where he finds his 'conscience' in the form of a rough sleeper who used to be a whiz-kid but fell from her high place and now drinks vodka in back streets. She suggests he finds his good deeds during his life but Good Deeds is ill and bed-ridden because of the paucity of good deeds. He's swallowed by despair until a young boy appears on a scooter and he realises it's him and he can speak to his younger self.

Everyman's despair turns to revelation as we meet his senses and realises that man is a marvel to behold. He thanks God for his sense of smell, of touch, his sexuality, his successes over the years. O yes, man is a marvel. But we find out that it's too late and Everyman is already dead. Not so dead that he can't call Death a cunt as he leaves. Death is offended and says he's at his most dangerous when he's unpredictable and turns on the audience, choosing who to take with him and the lights go out.

All I can say is 'wow'. The play takes you on a journey and I bet all our journeys are different, a journey into our own soul exposing us to thoughts and concepts, situations that can only make you think. And I did.

The writing was superb and the production as a whole was great, with marvelous lighting, a minimal set and a pit at the back of the stage for characters to vanish into. A massive video-wall for projections and lights to sparkle when you least expect it made up the staging. Chiwetel Ejiofor was exellent as Everyman, marvelously controlled and underplayed and so powerful. Kate Duchene played God as a cleaning lady, suitably downcast and weary with mankind and her servant, Death, played by Dermot Crowley with a charming Irish brogue and implacable intent. I'd also single out Sharon D Clarke as Everyman's mother and singer to enhance the group singing with her great voice. I've seen Sharon in a few things now and always enjoy her on stage.

I had no idea what to expect with this play and that uncertainty continued for the first 10-15 minutes with Everyman's debauched birthday party with no words, just music and lights. Loud, pumping disco music and Donna Summer singing 'I Feel Love' with lights flashing makes me wonder what is it about disco that summons up hedonism and debauchery? 40 years after disco emerged and it's still considered to be the epitome of hedonism? What's that all about?

I was thinking medieval and this production is very 21st Century with Chiwetel Ejiofor as the perfect cypher for linking those changing eons with his calm and controlled delivery and that makes the scenes of despair even more powerful. It's an old, old story updated for the 21st Century and it works so well in 2015. Have we learned anything over the centuries since Everyman first strode the world searching for someone to speak for him before God? I don't think so. I didn't just buy the programme for the production, I also got the script.

Go and see it while it's on. You'll regret not seeing it and how will that fit with your ledger when you stand before God? 

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