What’s the point? Why are we alive? Does God exist, and does He care about us? The biggest questions of them all are posed repeatedly in the original “Everyman”, a medieval parable of a man trying to dodge death and account for his deeds. In the poet Carol Ann Duffy’s new adaptation, which opened last night at the National Theatre in London, at least one of those questions is turned upside down: as the show begins, God, a weary but patient Mrs Mop (Kate Duchêne), takes a break from the eternal job of cleaning up after humanity to ask why it is that man seems to care so little for Her.
It’s a typically fresh approach from Duffy, whose reworking of the original might be in verse but still has plenty of room for the demotic as well as the demonic: “Did your man just call me a cunt?” Dermot Crowley’s Irish-accented Death asks the audience, disbelievingly. And it gives Rufus Norris, now deep into his first season as the new head of the National, just the kind of loose, poetic, rhythmic material he likes. As directed by him, the first ten minutes were some of the most visceral I’ve seen at the theatre. A huge screen crackled with images of life lived; Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Everyman, undulating in a shiny petrol-blue suit, fell in heartbreaking slow motion from the full height of the flies into a pit at the back of the stage; then, as dance music thundered and drummed, a gang of masked grotesques, sharply choreographed by Javier de Frutos, pantomimed a coke-sniffing, tequila-slamming 21st-century debauch. It was adrenaline-pumping stuff; a moment when you got an exciting glimpse of where Norris’s National might be heading.
After that things got a little more everyday for Everyman. As he tried to persuade his friends, his family and (most allegorically and oddly) his worldly goods that they should help him defy death, the flow of the storytelling began to fracture and slow. And while Ejiofor was never anything less than compelling, it took some time to feel he was anything more than a cipher. This may be because the character of Everyman is, frankly, a bit of a crowd-pleasing, hand-wringing dick, and Ejiofor so rarely plays low status. (Even when grovelling in pain on a cell floor in “12 Years a Slave”, his moral authority ran through him like wire.) Still, by the time he reached his final speech—a long, defiant monologue celebrating his life in all its failings—he was absolutely a man, as well as all men. His final lingering, wondering, unsure repetition of the phrase “I think I have a soul” was an operatic dying fall, done with great skill and beauty.
Despite a few irritating weak spots erupting in the chorus whenever they stop dancing and start talking, Ejiofor is well supported by the rest of the cast, particularly Duchêne. Penny Layden’s Knowledge (would it have been more accurate to title her Self-Knowledge?) is an authentically genderless, toothless, wobbling drunk who sees all too well where Everyman’s emotions are heading, and offers him a consoling bottle of Smirnoff whenever things get too self-pitying. Most enjoyable, though, is Dermot Crowley, wry and relentless in a white boiler suit, chemical gloves and flame-embroidered woolly hat. After he’s despatched Everyman, and God has wept over the grave, he’s left alone on the stage. “Eeeny, meeny, miney, mo,” he says, stabbing a killer finger at the audience. “Who’s next?” Death gets the last laugh, on stage as well as off.
Everyman Olivier, National Theatre, London SE1, to Aug 30th