Here’s a mission statement and a half. Rufus Norris, the National Theater’s new boss, kicks off his tenure with an “Everyman” for everyone. This is one of Britain’s oldest extant plays zapped into the 21st century with a plain-speaking adaptation by the nation’s poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. Norris directs with the eye-popping flair of an opening ceremony, centering on a commanding Chiwetel Ejiofor performance as the universal Everyman. Spectacular, straightforward and, alright, a little bit sentimental, it’s impossible not to like — even if it’s hard to love. What’s a national theater for if not for this? Who’s it for if not for all of us?
Everyman is a 15th century morality play in which one man faces his reckoning with God. He must chose someone or something to justify his life: friends, family, good deeds. Not remotely nuanced, it’s a straight-up reminder to do the decent thing in this life, or else face the consequences in the next.
Here, Ejiofor plays the title character — “Ev” to his mates — first seen plummeting to his death in slow motion. He’s a successful Londoner in a sharp blue suit, hedonistic, vain, self-centered, atheistic — but no more so than the rest of us. At his 40th birthday bash, surrounded by his boisterous mates, he sinks a dozen shots, hoovers up ten meters of cocaine and then falls over the edge of the roof. God (Kate Duchêne’s cleaning lady, who sweeps up before and mops down afterwards) and Death (Dermot Crowley, in a tired grey suit) are on hand to scrape him off the floor for judgment.
Ian MacNeil and Nicky Gillibrand’s designs are crisp and high-definition and, in the black expanse of the vast Olivier Theater stage, Everyman’s life flashes before his eyes. It’s an all-out cavalcade. His friends reappear, neon ghosts in Everyman masks; then his family, long left unvisited, now frail and senile; worldy goods as gold-gilt mannequins; and his former self, Everyboy, on a retro scooter. Ultimately, he comes face to face with his mirror image: a homeless drunk, a white woman (Penny Layden) in a shabby suit. “Welcome to hell, SE1,” she cackles. There but for the grace of God go each and everyone one of us. Cue Everyman’s renouncement and a reckoning of his own.
There’s no escaping the message, but there’s not supposed to be. Morality plays were public interventions, not conundrums to be chewed over, and Norris has taken the theatrical spirit of the original form, all masks and masquerades, and given it a contemporary spin. Arguably, it’s all too illustrative to affect any kind of change, and for all the nagging guilt it inspires, “Everyman” never really rattles its audience. Even an environmental sequence with a wind machine blasting the stalls leaves us broadly unruffled. Allegories rarely lead to action, and the final call, not be better but be grateful, is a cop-out. It’s a reflective evening, but the status quo is ultimately free to go.
If it won’t change the world, it points to a shift at the National. Duffy’s language is robust and accessible, like the best populist poetry, happy to give up airy metaphors for something more solid: beauty, love, life, death. Norris makes theater look fresh, with Tal Rosner’s sculptural videos gliding past and Javier De Frustos’s tubthumping choreography adding a pulse. Ejiofor holds it all together with a charismatic and committed performance, albeit in a personality-free role that draws out the school captain in him.
Still, it’s a humble performance in a production that pares itself back from excess and energy to something sparse and simple. Everyman starts by seeing himself in the world — all his friends wear his face, reflecting him back at himself — and ends understanding his place within it, surrounded by others in the same blue suit; all individuals, but all equally human.
The NT Live cinemacast of “Everyman” is set for July 16.