Two moments. A sharp-suited man free-falls from the flies, tumbling towards the Olivier’s stage against a vast backdrop of blurring pixels – a wallpaper of digital glitches. Then, later, the stage fills with a chorus of men and women stand around this fallen man, and sing ‘The Good Old Way’, that classic of rustic sanctity and purity:
‘And I know I have, and I feel I have
A sweet hope of glory in my soul.’
These are the extremes, the magical and the simple, the old and the new, the earthly and the divine, the fallen and the raised up resplendent, that are Rufus Norris has woven together in his debut production as NT big man. It’s ambitious, but humble, it insists on the new while reaching about as far back into the history of English theatre as it’s possible to go.
Everyman is the archetypal English Morality play (not the best perhaps, as it lacks Mankind’s scatology and overt theatricality), describing one man’s striving to attain salvation through an appeal to his meagre account of Good Deeds, but despite its schematic structure and obvious piety, it proves to be the ideal choice for a satire on 21st century materialism and narcissism with real political sinews beneath is sackcloth.
It’s this that makes Carol Ann Duffy (the best Poet Laureate since Tennyson) such an inspired choice for the adaptation. God is now a cleaner, and when we meet Her she’s mopping up after another unthinking debauchery from her children. You suspect She’d be on a zero hours contract, if She got any time off at all. She meets Everyman the night after his 40th birthday, when he poured enough booze and snorted enough cocaine to knock out Leviathan. Death enters dressed like a travelling salesman, later changing into a disposable boiler suit and gloves when he sets to work, like Gus Fring, but without the need for a box cutter. Goods are three ultra-luxe sales-people, dressed in solid gold like Kanye West’s death mask. Good Deeds lies close to death on a throne of plastic rubbish bags. Everyman’s family call him Ev, his sister struggling to look after a mother with gammy lungs and a father with a gammy brain, who both resent her for her homosexuality and exasperated charity.
This is all very good and very clever, it’s witty and it allows Duffy to find some space, air and purpose underneath the original play’s preaching, but its conceptual smartness is only the surface level of Everyman’s brilliance. Duffy’s poetry is so witty, so effortless in its compression of the sacred with the secular. Perfectly nailing the earthy, fleshy and even obscene tradition she follows, Duffy’s script is gleefully outrageous, it revels in the profane, allowing it to conversely afford the sacred the prominence and sincerity it deserves.
Because though Christ is largely given the heave-ho to allow concepts to sin and redemption to flow more freely and universally, Everyman remains a deeply religious play, which expects a kind of religious experience from its audience. Norris’ production, and in particular William Lyon’s soul-stirring arrangements for traditional instruments, keep one foot of Everyman (the one without the expensive shoe on its end, perhaps) lodged firmly in the spiritual convictions and conventions of the 16th century. There are nods in both production and adaptation, to the world of tablet computers, designer drugs and plastic money, but Norris’ production insists that if salvation and enlightenment are the goals, the language of a simpler life are required to represent them.
Chiwetel Ejiofor transfixes as Everyman, he has a pitiless kind of rage to him that you can believe could only soften with scourges, he is visibly broken down before there can be any hope of putting him back together. Kate Duchene is a perfect, exhausted God, and Dermot Crowley exudes a menace just beyond sense and comprehension as Death. But often it is the first class chorus which sets the stage spinning heavenwards.
Set design from Ian MacNeil relies heavily on a vast video wall, and while this is occasionally disappointing, large-scale projection always tending to smudge good stage imagery, there are moments of real awe, and Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes rise to the occasion with some perfectly grotesque images. Huge bulbous trash-bag creates that move in a procession like degraded, landfill Mystery wagons provide an unforgettable backdrop to Everyman’s toppled and defunct materialism.
There are moments where the pacing sags, where Norris reaches for the sublime and catches only its wingtips, but they’re quickly swallowed by this rich and various achievement. Its many pieces are broken up like neglected glass on a leaded window, until the glow of humanity and divinity crests and fills the Olivier with strange and brilliant light.