Everyman

Theatre, West End
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Everyman in Rufus Norris's production of the 15th century morality play.

One day, maybe in the not too distant future, Rufus Norris will create a show where he simply gives everyone in the audience a really strong pill, then blows up a couple of actual skyscrapers. The National Theatre’s new boss is a master of bombast and spectacle, and though he’s been a regular at the NT for years, his first production as head honcho is so seismically OTT that it’s hard to imagine where he could possibly go next other than down the ‘blowing shit up’ route.

‘Everyman’ is Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s adaptation of a centuries-old folk play about a man who discovers he is going to die and will shortly be judged by God. None of this is particularly apparent from an audacious, wordless opening scene, in which Everyman, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor – a big-screen star who’s never forgotten the stage – descends on a wire from the Olivier’s lofty ceiling. He then runs vertically, in slow motion, down through the pit in the middle of the stage, before re-emerging to have the mother of all sexy parties with his crew of hangers-on, all pounding techno music, febrile choreography (courtesy of Javier de Frutos) and conspicuous consumption – most memorably the ten metre-long lines of gak that Everyman and posse snort with élan.

It’s both a bit of a relief and a slight disappointment when the lunacy abates enough for the story to start. The bottom line is that even when written with probing wit by Duffy, medieval morality plays are not the place to go to for sophisticated characters and gripping plot twists. But Norris and Duffy’s hysterically pimped-up take on a fifteenth-century worldview at least goes a way beyond the superficial.

Rock-star charismatic and effortlessly in control of the vast Olivier, Ejiofor’s Everyman is a selfish City boy summoned by Dermot Crowley’s casually malevolent Death to justify himself to Kate Duchêne’s wryly compassionate cleaning-lady God. Understandably, he pegs it before Death can lay his icy paw upon him, embarking on a garish odyssey to stave off the inevitable.

There is an intrinsic thinness to the play, but Duffy packs it full of memorable characters and brilliantly sly rhymes, while Norris and his creative team ensure that nary a scene goes by that wouldn’t send Baz Luhrmann green with envy. And what looks suspiciously like a banker-bashing parable actually turns into something much more complex, with a final third of genuine, thought-provoking philosophising. And if ultimately it’s as much about the spectacle as the star, it’s a testament to Ejiofor’s stage chops that he holds his own against Norris’s mad vistas.

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