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London theater review: Oscar winner Chiwetel Ejiofor carries ‘Everyman’
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in the National Theatre's ongoing production of 'Everyman.' (Courtesy of the National Theatre)

London theater review: Oscar winner Chiwetel Ejiofor carries ‘Everyman’

For a 15th-century morality play where the entire plot revolves around a sinner’s meeting with Death, the National Theater’s adaptation of “Everyman” by Carol Ann Duffy feels surprisingly modern and trendy. With an almost Shakespearean main character (in what feels like a modern musical retold to cast Consumerism and Partying as Sins), however, “Everyman” sometimes feels like it’s spinning its wheels, failing to provide any new insights into its subject matter.

As Everyman, Chiwetel Ejiofor carries the play. He plays off his energetic ensemble with ease, switching from strutting rich party boy to doomed and desperate man without missing a beat. When Death arrives to tell him that his time has come, his anguish and desperation are beautifully palpable. He searches for meaning in familiar friends and activities (i.e. spending money), but finds none. Eventually he returns home to the family he’s left and to his overworked sister (takes with taking care of his senile father), finding that only his aging mother is genuinely happy to see him. He takes to the streets to attempt humility.

Duffy’s modern-day adaptation isn’t afraid to have some fun. She tends to keep the rhyming style in place, which the actors are talented enough to make feel almost natural, but she also maintains a certain level of creativity — toward the end of the play, Everyman calls Death a very bad word that rhymes with hunt, and gets a big laugh. The interaction Everyman has with Everyboy (himself as a child) provides quite a few laughs as well, as do God’s (an amusingly world-weary Kate Duchêne) sarcastic quips about hopeless mortals. Duffy strives to make the play relevant today, and it’s clear she wanted to incorporate contemporary humor in addition to focusing on issues of consumerism and class.

The problem is, “Everyman” tries to take the black-and-white rules of the 15th century and interweave them with modernity. In a time period with many more gray areas, it feels easy and not particularly novel or insightful to dismiss people who party as “sinners.” Is blood always thicker than water — will our family actually always have our backs? That simply does not ring true today. And how does becoming homeless actually teach Everyman more about living a life without sin? It feels like he’s just appropriating someone else’s struggle. At the end of the day, because “Everyman” is merely an updated adaptation of a 15th-century morality play, it never really transcends an overwhelmingly reductive plot.

With a script that feels simplistic at times, the burden then lies on the director and designers to craft an engaging piece. It’s here where the production shines. Set designer Ian MacNeil simply and effectively moves between the play’s many extremes. He starts with the excessive decadence of Everyman’s birthday party and the shiny silver mannequins in the high-end department store Everyman frequents. When it comes to despair, he empties the stage to a few bleak benches as rain pours overhead.

Other significant moments in the production stand out as well. When we first see Everyman, he’s being lowered through the air as if flying, or falling. We don’t quite know what is happening but it’s a compelling image. Later, when we realize he has died and his body drops quickly through the air — hitting the ground with a thud of finality — it’s shocking. At the same time, it gracefully brings us back to the start of the play.

This is where Rufus Norris succeeds as a director; he creates captivating moments and arresting visuals.  The talented ensemble transitions effortlessly from strung-out partygoers to literal trash on the streets to Everyman’s very own Senses and Wits. It’s a seamless production that keeps the audience entertained throughout, but at the end of the day, that can’t make up for the less-than-substantial story it tells.

Contact Noemi Berkowitz at noemi11 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

This is part of the Stanford Daily’s summer feature on London theater. To see all of our coverage, click here.

About Noemi Berkowitz

Noemi Berkowitz is the Chief Theater Critic and a desk editor at The Stanford Daily. She is a junior from Lincoln, Nebraska, double majoring in theater and psychology. You may see her reciting Shakespeare, wearing tie-dye and hiking. Contact her at noemi11 'at' stanford.edu.