From start to finish (or cradle to grave, to crowbar in a theme) this is an incendiary opening salvo from the National Theatre’s new artistic director Rufus Norris. Fast-paced, engaging, funny and precise, it delivers in every anachronistically delicious way you expect a Medieval morality play to – yet by addressing our modern addiction to self-gratification it achieves much more. Carol Ann Duffy’s searching, scorching re-imagination of this 15th-century quest for salvation left me asking myself the very questions she puts to Chiwetel Ejiofor's Everyman. The most prominent of these being the one which, after a sequence of events begun by a 40th birthday binge of champagne and cocaine, he screams to high heaven: “What does it mean to be a good person?”. I doubt I was the only one in the audience leafing through my metaphorical biography, as Everyman does physically, for some trace of that elusive character ‘Good Deeds’. Duffy and Norris drag Everyman kicking and screaming into the modern day brilliantly, frantically grasping these age-old moral questions to bail out the swelling tide of death. And the core question has never seemed as fitting as it does today: where oh where, in that eternal, infernal cross-section between selfish hedonism and consideration for others, between life and death, do we plot ourselves? This dramatic dilemma, coupled with Javier De Frutos' superb choreography, exhilaratingly free yet beautifully bound, makes for an incredibly satisfying hour and a half.
Ejiofor captures the essence of Everyman with humility – even to the point where it he seems to shed his starry skin to become a tad more ordinary-man than every-man. We relate to his excuses, recognise his flaws, and shrivel at his regrets as we recall our own. It may have been nice for Norris to push him to the extremes a little more – if only because we have learned that Ejiofor does not need the blockbuster pandemonium and consumerist tsunami of a well-funded production to heighten his performances. But this is no mortal sin. The whole Everyman here remains extraordinary.
And perhaps it is well that his talents don’t hijack the show; the strongest part of this production is the ensemble. Knowledge (Penny Laden), Good Deeds (Kate Duchene) and even Death (Dermot Crowley) support, supply and defy Everyman’s journey brilliantly. The characters in this myriad cast are as originally and interestingly played as any you might meet in the street. I was reminded more than once of the quote from St Teresa of Avila: “God walks among the pots and the pans”. Meanwhile the devil’s in the financial detail. The ensemble wields Duffy’s rhyming couplets well, and their handling of De Frutos’ choreography is slick, tight and made to look easy (you can bet your life it most certainly isn't). They move, speak and breathe as one throughout, making them a spellbinding force to watch.
Visually, Ian MacNeil’s set is sparse, timeless, with blue light emanating from the heavens to echo the moonlight so often referenced by Duffy’s chimerical text. Blue in fact is the prevailing colour of the piece here – that classical hue of eternity – and the ensemble complement this with flourishes of Nicky Gillibrand’s inspired costumes. I certainly left feeling like I was in purgatory, and considering very seriously how best to break out of it. If my soul weren’t at stake I’d say simply: lovely stuff.