The National Theatre’s Everyman: “Theatre that puts Capitalism on its knees”
Jack Deslandes reviews Everyman, The National Theatre’s modern reworking of the age-old classic. It turns out that it is possible to make an old thing new.
The National Theatre’s latest offering, Everyman, is a contemporary adaptation of a medieval classic. Modernized from old English by Carol Ann Duffy, the play’s themes are updated for a contemporary audience with the recognizable figure of Chiwetel Ejiofor at its helm.
When Rufus Norris took over from Nicholas Hytner as the new head of the National Theatre this year he promised a return to the classics. Hytner had worked to revitalize the company over his twelve-year reign, bringing in big names to take on big parts in new and exciting roles. Many were worried by Norris’ comments, myself included, and wondered whether the great gems of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime or The Last of the Haussmans might go amiss under the new chief’s programming. And so when he announced he would be bringing a text almost seven hundred years old to the NT’s main stage, the Olivier, no one could be that excited.
However, from the moment the first electric riffs of Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ rang out across the auditorium, it was clear this wasn’t going to be a production stuck in the past.
The original hopes to preach to an audience of sinners and make them recognize themselves in the Everyman character’s flaws and seek repentance through God. Where the medieval Everyman was a diligent labourer, Carol Ann Duffy’s is a diligent capitalist. It speaks to the middle-class consumers of the Olivier’s main demographic, having Chiwetel indulge in a highly physical sequence of hedonistic consumption of sex, drugs, and alcohol. We later learn that this binge leads to him falling off a roof and killing himself only to be visited by the embodiments of God, Death, Good Deeds, and several sins. He is then allowed back to the land of the living in hope of convincing someone to come with him and plead his case to God that he is not a bad person. But this proves harder than it sounds, as the people in Everyman’s life cannot come up with strong examples of morality in his favour.
In desperation, Everyman even appeals to, the strikingly golden gang, Greed to back him in front of God as a loyal customer of their service. It is here where the play highlights the cold heart of capitalism when Ejiofor’s, “The customer is always right!” is countered with explanations of his slave-status to the consumerist system and their irrelevance when facing God’s reckoning.
But where all this seems like the age-old preaching of “Love thy neighbor” and “You can’t take a camel through the eye of the needle”, the production adds freshness to its argument. Its ensemble supporting cast shape shift to become the competing elements of Everyman’s mind in a well-choreographed fusion of singing and dancing. The visual forces of onscreen video and accompanying live band crescendo in a flood of apocalyptic rain falling from the rafters to condemn the lead to his demise.
The environment, of course, gets a look in too when, in true Christmas Carol-style, the 12 Years a Slave actor visits himself as a boy and then makes comment along the lines of “When I was a boy my Mum used to watch the news, then the weather. Now, the weather has become the news and I’ve just covered my eyes like a spoilt child.” It seems an ode to Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, a book that was also cited at the Manchester International Festival this year as inspiration for Maxine Peak in The Skriker.
Is the fact that these themes are cropping up more and more on the British theatre scene an example of art imitating life? With the rise of Russell Brand, Klein’s book becoming an international bestseller, and even the immense popularity for Jeremy Corbyn’s lefty-Labour campaign, perhaps it is time for the arts to take centre-stage in calling for system change? Whatever the case, Rufus Norris is brave to commission such controversial works so early in his appointment. Long may we see much more of it to come.