Chiwetel Eliofor is no Everyman. A Hollywood A-lister, he ranks amongst the star spangled talent that has made the transatlantic crossing to Blighty’s theatres. Bradley Cooper is Elephant Man at the Theatre Royal; Ralph Fiennes has just concluded a sell out run in Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman at the National; now Eliofor is Everyman. Clearly these alpha male actors are attracted by any role with the suffix -Man. Whether Elephant, Super or Every, there is a whole host of talent in London’s West End this summer.
New National director Rufus Norris has entrusted Everyman to Eliofor in the creative’s first outing in the world of his curation. Master of all he surveys, Norris has made an odd decision in choosing to reboot the fifteenth and sixteenth century favourite, the morality play. To counterbalance this risk, he sought the safety of a reliably famous face, the Academy Award nominated star of 12 Years A Slave. If the play itself may put off the more casual theatre watchers, Norris has teamed up with Eliofor, a huge figure in the public eye and Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate. The combination of these two will more than compensate for the issue of his subject: the reboot of a sermon onstage, steeped in the less than sexy notion of allegory.
Eliofor is an OBE and CBE. Duffy, the Queen’s own brand poet. The pair represent institution. In a land of institutions, The National Theatre is one of Britain’s finest. But Norris is not known for safety. As directors are wont of late, onstage, all the rage are selfies, loud music and modern society. Everyman sees all three. At over two millennia old, Sophocles has not avoided such treatment. Nor does this five hundred year old morality play. Norris overcompensates for the age and antiquated nature of his source material by updating loudly. The selfies are the most opportunistically grating and forced inclusion. Three take place, the third and fortunately final captured on Death’s (Dermot Crowley) camera phone. Crowley is on fine form as a genial, bantering Death. His Irish tone and witty delivery suiting the almost Limerick writing style.
The playful end rhymes and couplets of Carol Ann are putty in the vocal chords of Crowley as he shapes each last syllable and struts the stage in a surfeit of camp omniscience. For the other actors, notably, Eliofor, the rhymes are reduced to a nursery level of infantile impressionism. The impression is of an overly wrought and clunky script which undermines the overall spontaneity of the stage and set. Regular Norris conscript, Javier De Frutos realises a varied and voluptuous dynamism to proceedings as the sins and senses cavort and cascade around Everyman. The complex interweaving of the characters’ choreography, an honest interpretation of one of the keystones of the morality genre. While the message was often heavy and shamelessly bombastic, the sense of fun and onscreen fireworks were designed to entertain the crowds. These included clever entrances for the likes of God and Death; here God is onstage cleaning the floors in marigolds, Death just walks up the stairs with a sense of resignation.
Instead of these set pieces, Norris and De Frutos opt for a constant barrage of stunts and a hedonistic assault on the senses. Coupled with Duffy’s often mumsy script, it all feels a little nineties in the play’s realisation of excess. Eliofor’s Everyman falls on the night of his fortieth birthday. So you can perhaps understand that events are all a little Human League. The pursuit of relevance takes the play to a Trainspotting drink and drugs boiling point. But whereas Boyle is always on trend as a student of society, the modernity of Everyman seems antiquated in itself. It is a 1990s update of the morality play released in 2015. A bizarre feat of chronological chaos that confuses and confounds. It is the brainchild of two middle aged creatives, a middle aged leading actor and an experienced poet. The laughs are catered to the tastes of the elder statesmen of the theatre rathe than providing insight on the new generation. Mind you, the primary laughs are based on the ‘c’ word (not children) and the kids’ counting rhyme ‘eeny, meeny, miny, moe.’ The morality play always had a juvenile wrap to its intrinsic intensity, but here it is rendered redundant.
As for Eliofor, the highlight is the trapeze artist plunge of his fall from grace at the play’s opening. The use of stage is clever and innovative. Death’s depiction, Everyman’s fall from the balcony, is a real experience for the front seats as Eliofor sweats on the abyss of Row A. In pulsating perfection his eyes seem to hyper extend as they become frog like set in the face of shock, surprise or terror. He has the expressions of a true craftsman. The front rows are masochistically treated to an episode of self-laceration straight out of the 12 Years A Slave archives. In ninety minutes his character is under developed and despite his trip home to visit his strangely northern family, the only word for Everyman is that he is an absolute c**t. So any pathos in his pursuit of life is lost by the fact that he is a city success story, earning enormous quantities of cash. Perhaps relevant to the theatre attending elites, but hardly representative of the majority. Nonetheless, he is the victim of capitalism. The most memorable and well structured scene of the night is with Goods. These shiny, Oscar looking representations of worldly wealth abandon Everyman despite his Balotelli style pockets of cash. At the first mention of a reckoning, they leave their victim and ascend the glass elevator of the department store to temptation and avarice. Because, after all, American Express, chief sponsors of the National, can do little to save a soul.