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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Ph: Richard Hubert Smith

For his opening production as the new artistic honcho of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris has chosen Everyman, a 15th-century morality play in which its eponymous hero, randomly sought by Death, is compelled to confront God and account for both the good and the bad deeds in his life.
Any similarity with the contemporary adaptation Norris has commissioned from poet-laureate Carol Ann Duffy, and what God-fearing mediaeval audiences were offered, ends there.

In Duffy’s version, Everyman – expressively played by Chewetel Ejiofo – is a well-dressed, well-connected, financially privileged power player who, while over-celebrating his 40th birthday with a heady cocktail of cocaine, booze and suggestively gyrating guests of all sexes, has his party pooped by the spectre of Death (Dermot Crowley), here seen as an overall-clad Irishman. It’s reckoning time, and Everyman (or “Ev” to his friends and colleagues) is ordered to meet his maker and take stock of his life.

Narratively speaking, that’s about it. In Duffy’s update, belief and religion are no longer the first items on this long-running morality tale’s agenda, with consumerism and the terrible things we do to the planet as we selfishly and hedonistically seek self-gratification taking their place. At one point God (Kate Duchene), seen as a Mrs. Mop-like cleaning lady, complete with bucket, tells us, “The angels weep to see the ruin of the Earth.”

Very true, but nothing new. The strength of Norris’ production lies less in what is being said than in the manner of its saying, and on a purely physical (as opposed to spiritual) level, his staging – using the full resources of his new toy – is the evening’s raison d’être.

Everyman is seen plunging to Earth from a dizzy height; there’s a cleansing rainfall; glittering Anthony Gormley-inspired figures are lowered from the flies; a character called Knowledge (Penny Leyden) reveals a prosthetic penis that urinates; a Technicolor display of moving garbage fills the stage; and, most striking of all, a tsunami is evoked when a giant revolving wind machine blows fake money around the vast Olivier auditorium. It’s visually dazzling, to be sure, but ultimately emotionally unengaging, with special effects substituting for content.

Fortunately, it is the towering performance of its protagonist that pays the evening’s highest dividends. Ejiofor, so impressive in the film 12 Years a Slave, is once again a forceful and charismatic presence as Everyman. Morphing from the braggadocio swagger of a successful city trader to the sadder, wiser penitent he becomes towards the end of the play, his journey from ignorance to enlightenment is a spectacle in itself – with no special effects required.
Norris’ direction, though not without its own brand of braggadocio, indicates he is already familiar with the Olivier’s notoriously difficult nooks and crannies. He is well supported by Javier de Frutos’ choreography, Ian MacNeill’s set design, Nicky Gillibrand’s striking costumes, Paul Anderson’s lighting, William Lyons’ music and by a large and excellent cast in supporting roles. A good – not great – start to the new regime at the National.


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