29 April 2015
The cleaner, weary, looks directly into the audience and asks what kind of day has been had by all. Are we enjoying our Prosecco? (Knowing sniggers given this is Opening Night) She warns that she will be clearing up condoms before the night is out but promises that won’t be the worst thing she has to clean up.
A man, dressed in a smart blue suit, but shoe less, falls from the sky and disappears into a half-circle black hole. A rowdy mob arrives and, in stylised fashion, emulates fun, friendship and frenzy. The man who fell arrives and is feted. He is turning 40. “Happy Fucking Birthday” is soon the raucous refrain. Bags of cocaine are produced, ripped open, the white powder sprayed over table tops. Every one indulges, again and again, and in the wake of snorting comes wave after wave of jollity, bravado, libido and violence.
The cleaner returns. The party goers depart, leaving the man in blue, the man who fell, strapped to a bench with police crime scene tape securing him. He wakens and vomits into her well placed bucket. It turns out the cleaner is God and she is not happy. She summons Death. He turns out to be a laconic Irish realist.
This is Everyman, Rufus Norris’ first production as Artistic Director of the National Theatre. This version of the medieval classic morality play has been written by Carol Ann Duffy and is heralded in the programme as a play “for the Anthropocene age”.
Scholar Kristen Shepherd-Bush, from the University of Oxford’s English faculty opines:
“Her modern retelling brings the original concerns of lack of faith and good deeds into sharply modern focus, making us reflect on the state of humanity in this extreme consumerist and secular age and the way to find meaning in a godless way. In the face of the death of the planet, Everyman’s demise seems paltry indeed. But, like the characters of Peer Gynt, Willy Loman, and Emily, he is all we have. The future of the planet depends, precariously, on humankind and its balance sheet of weaknesses and strengths, short-sightedness and ingenuity, selfishness and cooperation. Until this challenge is met, Everyman will continue to be as relevant now as it was for medieval audiences”.
It is difficult to argue with this. Duffy’s adaptation is both lyrical and contemporary. It’s funny too, like life, sometimes unexpectedly.
No, the problem here does not lie with the text. It lies with the production.
Norris throws everything at the production: a large ensemble, high wire antics, the singing of show tunes, cascades of glitter, a wind machine that pushes fake currency and air into the auditorium, cocaine use, rainfall, walking on broken bottles, multi-media activity, the C word, an orgy (of sorts) involving multiple sexuality combinations, many giant gold statues, fluro costumes, a flow of bubbles and garish golden outfits. It’s almost as if he doesn’t trust the material to make its own impact.
The result is garish, adolescent and intolerably dull. Too much show and too little style and substance. Sure it’s a bold, clear, state-of-the-world piece, but the production is firmly uninvolving, unrelentingly passive, irredeemably kitsch.
As Everyman, Chiwetel Ejiofor strives manfully to break through the tedious bonds of Norris’ psychedelic/hallucinogenic vision. He succeeds occasionally, and there is no doubting his conviction and passion. At times, his magnificent voice imbues Duffy’s writing with pulsing life.
Within the confines of the spectrum in which Norris requires them to operate, both Dermot Crowley (Death) and Kate Duchêne (God) are as good as can be expected and there is engaging work from Sharon D Clarke and the lad who played Everyboy.
Javier De Frutos choreographs proceedings in lively ways and there is exceptional lighting from Paul Anderson.
But…for a debut, marker in the sand, shape of things to come production, this Everyman does not bode well for the National. Especially after the disappointment of Norris’ other programming choice to date – Light Shining in Buckinghamshire.
Two strikes. Attention now turns to the forthcoming The Beaux’ Stratgem. Will this be a disappointing hat-trick for Rufus Norris?