Everyman at the National Theatre

From a dramaturgical point of view, there is not much to the fifteenth-century morality play Everyman. It tells a well-known story, of man’s journey from sin to salvation in the face of death; its characters are flat personifications with pre-determined roles to act out. By contrast, Carol Ann Duffy’s Everyman is like the medieval play on steroids. Sex, drugs, walking piles of garbage, and neglected parents make up the urban twenty-first century landscape of the Poet Laureate’s modern, but still rhyming, script. “Ev”, our universal protagonist and bad-boy banker, literally falls into the opening scene of his fortieth birthday party (he descends onto the stage, dangling in mid-air). This debauched and decadent scene set to synchronised coke-snorting and techno-music, he is told, will be his last. When Death arrives on the scene (in a hazmat suit, no less), Ev is forced, like his medieval counterpart, to take stock of his selfish life and pray for absolution. But in this journey, the characters he encounters become agents and situations that resonate with topical significance and urgency – the fast pace of corporate lifestyle, the dissolution of the nuclear family, and environmental disasters. While the religious framework of the morality play may no longer ring true for many in a modern audience, questions of responsibility, duty and conscience, the audience is reminded, still have their place in our secular times.

For a play that deals in universals, Duffy cleverly pushes the bounds of the category. Everyman is brilliantly portrayed by 12 years a Slave’s Chiwetel Ejiofor, a bold if welcome and excellent choice; Kate Duchenne as God is an invisible (and hence omnipresent) sweeper and woman. While Ev’s lifestyle is clearly, as the play also demonstrates, not all humankind’s, it does point towards Duffy’s universal enemy: a corporate world that glorifies individualism and risky choices, hones materialistic desires and, most importantly, creates in its inhabitants a complete lack of responsibility. While not quite having the instructive edge of the morality play form, this production of Everyman nonetheless does have its didactic elements, arranged in long (and mostly environmentalist) spiels that remind us of a basic lesson: that actions have, often irreversible, consequences. God, as the character herself says, and religion come and go like all ideologies, but this is a lesson for eternity.

The play swings between the hyper-spectacular and the poignant, the perfectly choreographed scenes with Ev’s friends and the gold, dazzling, personifications of materialism pitched against moments with his dying parents, and flashbacks to his childhood. Everyman is, if nothing else, a 1 hour 40 minute roller-coaster ride with little respite.

Priyasha Mukhopadhyay