A businessman topples from the roof of a skyscraper, hitting the imagined concrete with a percussive thud. Club beats pound throughout the auditorium. A terrified man voyages through his past life, coming face-to-face with his failings as a human being, while all the time he is in the clutches of a version of Death who may offer him no reprieve.
Hold on. Let’s rewind, and try to make sense of these fragmentary impressions. Let’s go back to the very origins of this story…
In medieval England, before Shakespeare, there were two types of play that toured across the country. There were the popular Mystery Plays, which reenacted dramatic scenes from biblical stories, such as Jesus’ harrowing of Hell. And then there were the less popular Morality Plays, of which ‘Everyman’ – so I’m told – is the supreme example.
It is the tale of what happens when Death comes knocking at your door, and you have to relive -and make a defence for – the life you’ve complacently led. This production is the National Theatre’s extravagant modernisation of that primal drama. They’ve got poet-laureate Carol Ann Duffy writing the script; they’ve got Bafta-winning actor and ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ star Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role; and, by adopting a high-tech approach to this old and dust-forgotten play, they’ve been able to imbue it with a sense of epicness that’s rare in modern theatre. Presumably, no expense has been spared.
And from his surreal, travelling-through-the-womb-like arrival, Eljiofor is superb, his remarkably expressive face easily conveying his inner journey to the audience, as he carries what verges on being a sustained one hour and forty minutes monologue (the play has no interval).
However, it’s not all good. Duffy’s script has many admirable qualities, but – in what I’m guessing is an attempt to mimic the style of the original play – she threads rhymes throughout her almost-naturalistic dialogue, and at certain points these can become grating on the ear.
But by the second half, the play hits full-stride, and really comes into its own. Of special note is the music, where a delightful amount of care has been taken. Apparently, in medieval England, the play would have been accompanied by music and song to emphasise the overall intent and atmosphere of the story.
This production stays true to that essence, keeping the medieval music while combining it with modern sounds that better evoke the narrative’s contemporary setting. So we have recorders and whistles offering a purity of timbre which, in earlier times, was associated with death and the afterlife, rubbing up against club beats, samples, and inventive so-subtle-you-might-miss-it remixes of Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love.’
This strand of the play crescendoes with a beautiful and majestic rain-soaked sequence, where medieval chant is married to gospel-style singing. It’s breathtaking, inspiring stuff – the sort of moment that will live on in your mind long after the play has ended.
The fact that this production also intermingles a lively sense of humour, experimental theatre, a surprising number of football references, and a fundamental human narrative that’s been reoriented to explore potentially the most apocalyptic global problem of today, and you have the cocktail for an excellent piece of art.
The legend of the Morality play lives on, and this is certainly a slice of it worth checking out.
‘Everyman’ has a running time of 1hr40 with no interval at the National Theatre, until 30 August