'Everyman': Theater Review

Everyman Production Still - H 2015
Richard Hubert Smith

Everyman Production Still - H 2015

Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1499

Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a debauched London playboy looking for salvation in this spectacular modern-day reboot by new National Theatre boss Rufus Norris.

The National Theatre's new artistic director Rufus Norris clearly sets out to make a big splashy statement with his first directing job since taking over the position, a 15th century morality play rebooted into a contemporary state-of-the-nation address featuring 12 Years a Slave star Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role. Re-imagined by Britain's current poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, this latest update of Everyman is an all-singing, all-dancing, visually ravishing pageant that succeeds as grand-scale sensory spectacle but offers limited nourishment for the brain or heart.

Its authorship lost in history, Everyman was originally a religious allegory warning Catholic audiences not to be lured into a sinful life. It has been endlessly reinterpreted ever since, finding thematic echoes in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt and even Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life. In Duffy's 21st century remix, Ejiofor plays the eponymous antihero, a wealthy London playboy living a life of debauched self-indulgence and conspicuous consumption. But the party cannot last. On the cusp of turning 40, he is suddenly called to a final reckoning by God in the guise of a humble cleaner (Kate Duchene) and her henchman Death (Dermot Crowley), a gloriously cynical Irishman.

Ejiofor arrives onstage on wires, falling from the rafters in slow motion in front of a giant video screen. The orgiastic Wolf of Wall Street party scene that follows features a sustained blast of Donna Summer's "I  Feel Love," a four-letter rap version of "Happy Birthday," and 20-foot-long lines of cocaine chopped out along a dinner table in a scene that irreverently echoes Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper. Later in the story we encounter mountainous piles of trash shuffling across the stage on human legs, striking large-scale dance numbers in fluorescent masks, and a powerful wind machine that sends gusts of paper into the audience.

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Norris, set designer Ian MacNeil and choreographer Javier De Frutos have stuffed this production with music and movement, eye-catching stunts and colorful tableaux. But once the visual and musical razzle-dazzle dies down, the substance of the text beneath feels a little thin. Faced with imminent extinction, an incredulous Everyman tries to bargain with Death and repent his sins, visiting the family he callously left behind years ago before finding himself in the gutter with a homeless bag lady. Meanwhile, the coke-snorting party posse and grasping storekeepers who once fed off his patronage prove to be fickle fair-weather friends. These more conventionally dramatic scenes feel labored, peopled by sitcom caricatures and stage drunks.

Returning to the London stage for only the second time in eight years, Ejiofor is always a magnetic presence. Norris works the 37-year-old Oscar nominee hard with a highly physical performance that keeps him centerstage for almost every one of the show's 100 minutes. But the role mostly demands alpha-male swagger and declamatory verbosity, leaving little room for subtlety in Ejiofor's supercharged emoting. Crucially, Everyman never appears in real existential threat and thus elicits little empathy.

Meanwhile, Crowley gets all the funniest lines and steals all of his scenes as a cheerfully foul-mouthed Grim Reaper, relishing every petty human folly and doomed plea for mercy. Straight out of Beckett or Pinter, this sardonic hit man deserves his own spinoff play.

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Duffy's playful free-verse adaptation moves fluidly between lyrical elegance and vulgar slang, adding contemporary references to selfies and fracking, all spiced with the kind of weapons-grade swearing that we Brits enjoy so much. Less successful is her attempt to link Everyman's blinkered consumerist lifestyle with the ravaged state of the planet, adding a timely ecological twist to an antique theological theme. This is a bold idea but clumsily realized, since the text's underlying religious message remains firmly in place, anachronistic and largely irrelevant to modern theater audiences.

Screening in cinemas worldwide in July as part of the long-running NT Live program, Everyman is high-end spectacle theater, and Ejiofor's starry presence will undoubtedly help fill seats through the end of its run in August. But with so many high-caliber talents involved, it feels disappointing that this rebooted relic has little of depth to offer 21st century viewers besides trite and obvious warnings not to live a selfish life. Brilliant showmanship, not much soul.

Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Duchene, Dermot Crowley, Sharon D. Clarke, Philip Martin Brown, Michelle Butterly, Coral Messam, Adam Burton, Nicholas Karimi
Director: Rufus Norris
Playwright: Carol Ann Duffy

Choreographer and movement director: Javier De Frutos
Set designer: Ian MacNeil
Costume designer: Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting designer: Paul Anderson
Sound designer: Paul Arditti
Music: William Lyons
Presented by National Theatre